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Alabama advocates hope to reintroduce legislation reforming civil asset forfeiture

Gabby Dance

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Innocent until proven guilty is heralded as a rightful standard in the United States criminal justice system, but when it comes to civil asset forfeiture, the standard seemingly flips to the opposite.

Under Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture policies, police are able to seize personal property from citizens without a criminal charge or conviction if they find probable cause to believe the property could be connected to a crime.

In order to regain their property, owners not convicted of crimes must go through a court process to prove the property was not connected to a crime. Even then, it may take months or years to receive their property, if they ever get it back.

Because of this, Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture laws have been rated among the worst in the nation by the Institute for Justice.

According to Executive Director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice Carla Crowder, this practice harms low-income Alabamians who may not have the necessary funds to hire a lawyer. For these people, having money or cars taken away can be extremely detrimental.

“What we found is that a lot of people, even though their money or their property is taken, and they are not convicted of a crime, don’t have the resources to hire an attorney so they don’t go to court to challenge that forfeiture,” Crowder said. “So, they end up losing a lot of property or their money.’

The practice gained federal popularity during the so-called “War on Drugs” of the 1980s as a means to fight organized crime. However, Crowder said it has evolved to target ordinary citizens with no criminal intentions.

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“You can be someone who doesn’t have a bank account, you’re driving down the road, you get pulled over in a traffic incident and the police find $1,500 in the car because you’ve just cashed a paycheck,” Crowder said. “When the officer sees the cash, he or she can take it. The police are taking small amounts of cash and property and not having to prove people were involved in a crime, much less some kind of big, criminal enterprise.”

According to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the amount of cash seized in half of Alabama’s 1,100 examined civil asset forfeiture cases was under $1,372.

Government entities in Alabama have historically not been required to report what they have taken or what they have done with the unclaimed property.

“It just should be a given that when the government takes citizen’s property, we should know what they’re doing with it,” Crowder said. “They should have to report what they take, what they keep, how they use it.”

Alabama takes step to create civil asset forfeiture database

According to Crowder, this can potentially lead to abuse by officers, who could take proceeds from federal forfeiture actions for themselves.

“This is an example where police agencies, instead of pursuing fairness and justice, are pursuing profits,” Crowder said. “That’s just now how the criminal justice system should work. The system should be designed to keep communities safer and treat people fairly, not for police officers to make a profit off of innocent citizens’ property.”

Last year, legislation calling for a criminal conviction to be required in order to seize property, protection of property owners and transparency of the process was introduced by state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and state Rep. Arnold Mooney, R-Birmingham.

This legislative session, advocates are planning to introduce another similar bill.

“We do expect that bill to be filed,” said SPLC staff attorney Emily Early.

The omnibus bill would essentially end the practice of civil asset forfeiture, grouping it into criminal proceedings.

“There would be a requirement of a criminal conviction for any forfeiture of property or proceeds to occur,” Early said.

Civil asset forfeiture reform has been a recent nationwide trend.

A current bill requiring a criminal conviction before the forfeiture of property has gained strong support in the South Carolina legislature, and the Arkansas state Senate recently unanimously approved a bill requiring a criminal conviction before civil asset forfeiture.

The Supreme Court also ruled in late February that people who have lost property through civil asset forfeiture can argue that the amount taken was excessive under the eighth amendment of the Constitution, which bars excessive fines.

“Alabama would not be a first to step out there and reform this practice, which we believe is a huge governmental overreach and a violation of an individual’s due process right,” Early said.

Last year’s bill gained bipartisan support but ultimately failed to pass due to law enforcement pushback.

“There was significant opposition from law enforcement, unfortunately, in the state of Alabama, particularly prosecutors such as district attorneys who are opposed to ending civil asset forfeiture and believe that civil asset forfeiture is a necessary means to fight crime,” Early said. “Our position in introducing the bill that would end civil asset forfeiture … is that it is completely possible to fight crime and to really get at the higher-level criminal perpetrators without taking away property when there is no sort of crime, charge or conviction.”

Though a potential future bill has not been brought into play yet, progress toward accountability with civil asset forfeiture has been made.

Last week, the Alabama Districts Attorneys Association, alongside Mooney, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and other public policy groups, began taking steps toward creating a reporting system to keep track of the use of civil asset forfeiture in Alabama.

The Alabama Forfeiture Accountability System will track and compile all state civil asset forfeiture cases, generate reports to lawmakers and state officials and provide information on the use of civil asset forfeitures to the public.

District attorneys across the state started collecting data related to civil asset forfeiture, including filings, pleadings and court rulings, on March 1 to submit to the database.

“This has been a work in progress since last spring, when legislation to create a data collection and reporting system for civil asset forfeiture system died when time ran out on the legislative session,” said Barry Matson, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association and the state Office of Prosecution Services. “But we continued to work with many groups – from law enforcement and state agencies to policy groups with an interest in asset forfeiture – to voluntarily put the system in place.”

Mooney hopes that this will aid lawmakers in supporting a future bill.

“I can’t overstate the importance to lawmakers of having accurate, reliable information as we look legislatively at civil asset forfeitures,” Mooney said. “This new system will help paint a clearer picture of what is actually going on in the state.”

Though the new database shows progress, the SPLC’s Shay Farley said legislative change is still necessary to ensure the government is protecting individual property and due process rights.

“Increasing government transparency is always a positive step but as they say: ‘the devil is in the details,’” Farley said. “Information about how much revenue is collected in Alabama civil asset forfeiture cases or how those funds are used by the receiving governmental entities throughout the state has always been secret, and it’s not clear this will change in this new system.”

 

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Marsh’s budget hearing compared to revenge porn

Bill Britt

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Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, has scheduled a general fund budget hearing for early July — purportedly to prepare for the 2021 Legislative Session that begins in February.

But that is not the real reason for the budget hearing, according to Senate insiders who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid provoking Marsh. The actual purpose of public hearings, according to multiple sources, is to try to find a way to embarrass Gov. Kay Ivey.

In a press release from his office, Marsh says the budget meetings will focus on funding prison reform and rural broadband.

However, an agenda circulated for a July 9 budget committee meeting obtained by APR makes no mention of broadband and focuses entirely on the Ivey administration’s spending.

In the press release, Marsh said that the budget hearing is needed to address “a potential $2 billion-dollar prison reform proposal.”

But according to the Governor’s Office and published reports about Ivey’s prison reform plan, there is no mention of a $2 billion proposal as Marsh claims.

He also states that the other reason for the hearings is to address “a stunning lack of rural broadband investment.” However, broadband is not an item on the agenda.

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Marsh’s enmity toward Ivey was on full display in the days after the governor revealed his “Wish list” in May, to spend federal relief money on a variety of projects only vaguely related to the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to those who regularly interact with the Senate, he is still angry that Ivey exposed his plan to appropriate nearly $1.9 billion in federal relief money to finance pet projects, which included spending $200 million on a new State House.

The money the state received under the CARES Act was to be allocated to shore up business, citizens’ interests and institutions ravage by the shutdown due to the spread of COVID-19.

First, Marsh denied the existence of a “wish list,” then he said Ivey asked for it, and finally, he took ownership of the list and said he thought $200 million for a new State House is a “good idea.”

For weeks after the debacle, Marsh aided by some Senate Republicans tried to spin what happened without success.

Marsh had also wanted to use $800 million in CARES Act funds to build out rural broadband and had reportedly hoped to use the budget meeting to push his broadband plan forward.

Ivey blocked his plan to use CARES Act funds for pork projects and convinced the Legislature to reject Marsh’s preferred budget in favor of Ivey’s executive amendment.

“First Ivey made him look greedy and foolish and then she turned most of the Legislature against him,” said one of APR‘s sources.

Recently, Ivey was once again a step ahead of Marsh when just days after he announced his July budget hearings to consider broadband expansion, Ivey released her plan to spend $300 million on rural broadband, stealing his thunder.

According to APR‘s Senate sources, Ivey’s latest move was another blow to Marsh’s ego.

“Del, [Marsh] has power, but he’s never had to deal with a governor who knows how to counter him,” said another Senate insider.

Another regular observer of Marsh said, his latest move to hold budget hearings is akin to “revenge porn.”

“She dumped him, and now he wants to get even, sounds a lot like revenge porn to me,” the source said.

At the July hearing, Ivey Administration officials will be questioned on CARES Act spending, budgets for the department of corrections and pardons and parole.

Finance Director, Kelly Butler, will testify to what CARES funds have been spent and what remains.

ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn will be queried on several issues, including hiring, overtime pay, prison construction, and Holman prison’s status and personnel.

Pardons and Paroles Commissioner, Charles Graddick, will face the committee to discuss personnel costs, equipment purchases with an “emphasis upon computers, software, vehicles, office furniture and other substantial expenditures,” according to the document.

Lastly, the committee will question Personnel Department Director, Jackie Graham, to give an account for DOC and ABP&P personnel growth plans.

While it is wholly within the Legislature’s purview to approve and exercise oversight of government spending, this is not what the budget hearings are about according to APR’s sources.

According to several Senate insiders and others with knowledge of Marsh’s thinking, this is a move to paint Ivey’s administration as “out of control on spending.”

“This is a trap Marsh hopes to use for PR, but what if there’s nothing to see, how does he spin it,” asked an individual with close ties to the administration. “She’s kicked his tail before; she’ll likely do it again,” the source said.

 

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House

Senate pro tem requests general fund committee begin hearings in July

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Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, R-Anniston, announced today that he has asked Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee Chairman Greg Albritton, R-Range, to begin holding General Fund Committee meetings in preparation for the next session.

In an effort to be better prepared because of uncertainty in state revenue as a result of COVID-19 pandemic Senator Albritton has agreed with Senator Marsh and has invited Legislative Services, the Department of Finance, Pardons and Paroles, Corrections and the Personnel Department to provide updates to the committee.

“Typically, we begin this process closer to sessions however because of uncertainty about state income and possibility of special sessions, we felt like it was important to get started much earlier than usual in this process,” Senator Albritton said. “The Legislature has done an excellent job managing our budgets over the past few years. So much so that Alabama was able to weather the storm of the COVID-19 shutdown this year with little impact to our vital state services. We understand that we will not have final revenue projections until after July 15th, but we must continue to do our due diligence and ensure that we use taxpayer money sensibly.”

“We want to make sure that all public money is being used wisely, now and in the future,” Senator Marsh said. “We have many pressing issues facing the state such as a potential $2 billion-dollar prison reform proposal and a stunning lack of rural broadband investment which need to be addressed whenever the Legislature is back in session and it is our duty to make sure we are prepared and kept up to speed on these matters. Furthermore, the taxpayers deserve a clear and transparent view of how their money is being used.”

The hearings are scheduled to begin July 9 in the Alabama State House.

 

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Governor

Part-time employee in lieutenant governor’s office tests positive for COVID-19

Staff

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A part-time employee in Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth’s office, who the office said works only a handful of hours each week, tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday, according to a press statement.

The employee, whose work area is separated from the rest of the staff, last worked in the office on the morning of Thursday, June 18.

All members of the office staff have been tested or are in the process of being tested for COVID-19 in response, and, thus far, no additional positive results have been reported.

In addition, the State House suite has been thoroughly cleaned and will remain closed until all employees’ test results have been returned.

Employees are working remotely from home, and phones are being answered in order to continue providing services to the citizens who need them.

 

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Legislature

Alabama Democrats call for Rep. Will Dismukes to resign over support for Confederacy

Eddie Burkhalter

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Updated at 8 p.m. to include a response from Rep. Will Dismukes.

The executive director of the Alabama Democratic Party on Friday called for the resignation of a Republican state representative over his support for the Confederacy, Confederate monuments and his membership in a local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter. 

The Alabama Democratic Party — in a statement released Friday — said that Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Pratville, is receiving criticism for his support of the lost Confederate cause and “as elected officials of all stripes seek to move Alabama forward, Dismukes is stuck in the past.” 

“Rep. Dismukes, Chaplain of the ‘Prattville Dragoons: Sons of Confederate Veterans,’ was recently praised in the group’s newsletter as being representative of the Confederacy’s ‘Godly heritage,'” the press release states.

“We need elected officials who work for a better tomorrow for all Alabamians,” said Wade Perry, executive director of Alabama Democratic Party, in a statement.  “That should go without saying. If little Will wants to play dress-up and pretend to fight for the lost cause, he should resign. His job is to pass laws that help Alabamians, not honor folks who fought to preserve the institution of slavery.”

Dismukes in a Facebook post later on Friday addressed the call for his resignation, and said he’d neither resign nor apologize for the photo in which he was standing in front of the American and Confederate flags.

“I will release an official statement tomorrow. No worries I’m not resigning because the Democratic Chairman requested my resignation. I also will not be apologizing over a picture in front of the flags nor being chaplain of my local SCV camp which is listed as a heritage group by the SPLC,” Dismukes wrote in his post. “We have enough people caving to the communist left. For the love of life it’s time for people to stop being so sensitive and apologetic and take a stand before our country is Gone with the Wind. This is way bigger than history and monuments. Deo Vindice.”

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Dismukes’s use of the phrase “Deo Vindice” — in his post Friday, and in other posts on his social media — is notable. The phrase was selected by the Confederacy as a motto, and translates to “God will vindicate,” according to the Museum of American History.

In an interview on WVNN’s “The Jeff Poor Show,” Dismukes was critical of a recommendation by House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, to stop using tax money to fund the Confederate Memorial Park in Chilton County.

The Alabama Historical Commission receives about $600,000 annually to run the park, according to Al.com. 

“I think he’s dead wrong. I don’t think it would be a wise decision for our state to move in that direction,” Dismukes said during the program, as quoted by Yellowhammer News.

In a Facebook post on June 14, Dismukes called for more funding for the Confederate Memorial Park.  “No chance we stop funding the State Park!!! This will not happen on my watch,” he wrote.

“We technically give a small portion of what is actually supposed to go towards the park. If anything we should give more to the park and ensure our history is preserved,” Dismukes wrote in the post. 

In an April 27 Facebook post, Dismukes refers to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.” In several other Facebook posts, he references and quotes the national motto of the failed Confederacy, “Deo Vindice.”

In another Facebook post, Dismukes is seen standing in front of a Confederate flag, wearing a shirt with a Confederate flag patch while celebrating “Confederate Flag Day.”

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, protests against police brutality have resulted in calls for policies to address systemic racism and for Confederate monuments to come down, and across the South and in Alabama many have already been removed. Monuments in Mobile, Birmingham and Montgomery have come down. 

The National Trust for Historic Preservation on Thursday released a statement calling for the removal of Confederate monuments, most of which the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit said “were intended to serve as a celebration of Lost Cause mythology and to advance the ideas of white supremacy.” 

“Many of them still stand as symbols of those ideologies and sometimes serve as rallying points for bigotry and hate today. To many African Americans, they continue to serve as constant and painful reminders that racism is embedded in American society,” the nonprofit said in a statement.

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