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Josh Moon

How Alabama’s civil forfeiture laws left a couple living in a storage shed

Josh Moon

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Teresa and Greg Almond are living in a storage shed.

In their 50s, business owners and upstanding citizens, they live in a storage shed, are warmed by a propane heater and use solar panels to get a smidge of energy to power a small TV at night.

They didn’t get there by personal mistakes. It wasn’t opioids or meth. Bad investments didn’t take their life savings. An Alabama tornado didn’t destroy the home they once lived in near Woodland.

Civil asset forfeiture destroyed the Almonds.

Specifically, Alabama’s ridiculously broad and downright unconstitutional civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow Alabama cops to seize property even though citizens are never convicted of a crime and then forces people to prove their innocence.

If you’re at all familiar with the very basics of the American justice system, you’ve likely heard of innocent until the state proves you guilty. Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture laws flip that.

They do so by allowing cops to seize property they merely suspect was obtained by way of criminal activity or from the proceeds of criminal activity.

So, police bust a guy for selling weed, they can confiscate his car under the assumption that the proceeds from the sales of weed paid for the car. Doesn’t matter if that’s true, or even if it’s impossible.

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The car goes with the cops and the suspected weed dealer is then forced to go to court and prove that the car wasn’t purchased with drug money.

Even if the suspected dealer is never convicted of a crime.

It’s a system that is abused countless times every single day in this state, allowing cops, according to figures compiled by the Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and Southern Poverty Law Center, to seize more than $2.2 million worth of property in 2015 alone. That included 119 vehicles and more than 400 firearms.

Turns out, it wasn’t Obama coming for your guns. It was your town’s cops.

These laws have emboldened police — desperate for revenue sources and easy money — to flaunt the laws, trample rights and ruin lives.

Which is exactly what happened to the Almonds, as reported by Appleseed on its blog last week.

A Randolph County drug task force agent claimed to smell marijuana from outside the Almonds’ home, providing probable cause for a raid. Once inside, the cops found a $50 bag of weed, which the Almonds’ adult son told Randolph police was his, and a single Lunesta pill resting outside of a prescription bottle with Greg Almond’s name on it.

Greg and Teresa were arrested and charged with second degree marijuana possession, a misdemeanor, and FELONY possession of a controlled substance for the lone Lunesta pill.

On the basis of this arrest, the Randolph County task force then tore through the Almonds’ home, tearing it apart and taking with them Greg’s large gun collection, Teresa’s wedding rings, antique guitars, a coin collection and $8,000 in cash.

But even worse was that the Almonds were scheduled to meet with a bank the following morning to refinance their mortgage and business loans to avoid foreclosure. They missed that meeting because they were in jail and ended up losing their home. It also didn’t help that the raid curtailed business to their engraving shop.

By the time it was all over, a good and decent family had lost literally everything. Greg is working part time as a handyman. They live in what was once a storage shed on old family property.

They have filed a federal lawsuit, but even if it’s successful, their lives will never again be what they were.

Because some Alabama cops decided to take everything from them.

And because Alabama law continues to give those cops, at the very least, the belief that they have the right to do so.

 

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Josh Moon

Opinion | The people have always been more important than the monuments

Josh Moon

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Two participation trophies fell in Alabama on Monday night. 

No tears were shed. 

On the same day that the state “celebrated” Confederate Memorial Day — which is somehow still a state holiday some 150 years after the traitorous South surrendered in its quest to make legal the ownership of other human beings — a large monument in Birmingham’s Linn Park went away piece by piece and a metal statue of Robert E. Lee was toppled and hauled away from its spot outside of a Montgomery high school. 

This is progress, I guess. At least those eyesores are gone (for now, in the case of the Lee statue), even if the attitudes that kept them in place remain. 

It is no secret by now that I have never understood the fervor with which so many people in this state cling so tightly to reminders of defeated traitors who fought to enslave black people. 

I mean, I understand why racists cling to them. I don’t understand how those who claim to “not have a racist bone in my body” also cling to them. I don’t understand our state lawmakers creating laws to protect them. 

Monuments are meant to honor the people depicted in them. You don’t see us creating monuments of the 9/11 hijackers at the former World Trade Center site, do you? 

You know why? Because while that day was historic and we’ll want to remember those who died forever, we don’t honor those who caused that devastation. 

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But then, I don’t actually think anyone is confused by this. The cries of “protecting history” or “not erasing history” are nothing more than phony excuses meant to mask the true intent of cowards too ashamed or too scared to say what they really mean. 

And what they really mean is that they still cling to this notion of white supremacy. They’re just too scared of the societal backlash to put on a white hood and attend the meetings. 

These people see the removal of the Confederate monuments as a loss — a personal loss. Because that tie to the confederacy and the sad, pathetic belief that they were somehow superior because of the color of their skin has sustained them throughout their lives. 

That’s why they cling so tightly to these relics of the past — because those relics represent their “heritage” and their worth. 

It doesn’t matter at all that poor whites and poor blacks have so much more in common in 2020 than poor whites and rich whites. If the two groups ever bonded, ever formed a mutually beneficial coalition, they could — by the power of their numbers — change America overnight to a more just, more equitable country. 

But they won’t, because poor white people would lose their ability to look down on someone. And really, what good is life if you can’t make certain that someone out there has it worse than you? 

And so, here we are, more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War and more than 60 years since Dr. King crossed the bridge in Selma, still fighting battles over race and discrimination and hatred and intolerance. 

Maybe the protests of George Floyd’s killing will finally be the straw to break this thing. Maybe the days of everything being on fire, along with those awful images of Floyd, will instill in the minds of enough people that there really are problems.

Maybe we can finally stop holding onto these relics of the past and concern ourselves more with holding onto each other.

 

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Josh Moon

Opinion | How can any of this be a surprise?

Josh Moon

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I am a “race-baiter.” I have “white guilt.” I’m a “n—– lover.” I’m a “traitor to my race.”

Over the course of my 20 years doing this job, and writing my opinions on the state of race and equality in Alabama, I’ve heard it all. I’ve been called it all, and I have the emails to back it up. 

These are the names that come flying at you when you dare point out that Alabama’s track record on racial justice is for crap. Or that this state’s love for the confederate traitors to the country is insulting and hurtful to the state’s black citizens. 

Because the majority of this state does not want to hear it. 

And that’s exactly why things are on fire right now. 

For generations, we have not wanted to hear about the injustices and inequality, not wanted to acknowledge them, not wanted to make amends for them. Hell, we’ve got quite a few people actively working to make sure they’re never undone. 

Whenever there were nonviolent protests, they were belittled, shoved down and painted as anti-American. Many times, when black men and women expressed rightful outrage, their cries were met with silence, indifference or outright retribution. 

What did you expect to happen? 

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Did you honestly believe that you could keep your knees on the necks of an entire race of people for multiple generations and never suffer the consequences? Did you think there would be no bill to pay for those injustices? 

Did you think that you could continue with mass incarcerations, school segregation and social unfairness and that those disenfranchised people would simply take it and move on? That there would never be a boiling over of anger and despair? 

Really, it is the audacity of white people that has caused this. 

Before you roll your eyes, consider this: Right now, in Montgomery, Alabama, the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, there is not a single statue of Martin Luther King Jr., who led his first church in the city. At the same time, every single school day, at a school where over 90 percent of the students are black, kids stroll past a large statue of Robert E. Lee. 

On the grounds of the state capitol, there is a large statue of Jefferson Davis. And another to J. Marion Sims, the doctor who used to experiment on slave women to save anesthesia. 

Oh, and did I mention that Monday is Confederate Memorial Day in Alabama — a paid, state holiday for state workers?

You know what all of that says? 

We don’t care. 

We don’t care if this hurts you. We don’t care if it fosters an attitude of hate and intolerance. And we don’t care that we don’t care. 

People have this misguided notion, it seems, that all of these protests and all of this anger is over the killing of George Floyd. That’s not it. 

Sure, Floyd’s death touched off the protests. But really, they’re about much, much more than that. They’re about the daily, everyday injustices and frustrations and annoyances and wrongs that are allowed to happen to minorities in America. 

Wrongs that we refuse to correct or that we dismiss. 

The traffic stop for rolling through a stop sign that ends with a teenager face down and multiple cops’ guns pointed at him. The job interviews that never pan out. The promotions that never come. The home loan that doesn’t go through. The police abuse that goes unaddressed. The school suspensions for minor offenses.  

This powder keg has been building for decades. 

How can it possibly be a surprise to anyone?

 

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Merrill’s opinions on vote by mail not supported by facts

Josh Moon

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Voting by mail does not lead to fraud. 

We know this because voting by absentee ballot is essentially the same thing as voting by mail. And it is so safe that millions of people, including the U.S. military, the current president, most of his family, a good chunk of Alabama legislators and about half of Congress, do it every year and still the incidents of fraud are less than 1 percent. 

There have been exhaustive studies and audits completed to prove this point, including “research” conducted by a committee formed by Donald Trump three years ago. That committee found no real evidence of widespread voter fraud of any kind, only unique instances in which bad actors with access to ballots committed crimes. 

The rate of fraud in the 2016 election was 4 in more than 130 million votes cast. There was no evidence of undocumented workers voting. No evidence of in-person fraud. No evidence of widespread absentee ballot fraud. No evidence of hacking. No evidence of dead people voting. 

And most importantly, in states, such as Florida, that allow for mail-in voting, there was no evidence that casting a ballot by mail has ever spurred any increase whatsoever in voter fraud. 

These facts are apparently lost on Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who, in an effort to attract the eye of Trump on Twitter, declared that Alabama would not have a direct vote-by-mail option to provide citizens with a safe, secure alternative to voting in person in the middle of a pandemic. 

Merrill then followed that up with an appearance on CNN — an appearance he is apparently proud of since he’s retweeted a clip of the interview about a dozen times over the last two days — in which he bemoaned the clear and present danger that mail-in voting clearly brings. 

And how does he know that voting by mail will increase fraud in elections? Because in Alabama, there has been voter fraud and 83 percent of the fraud committed has been absentee ballot fraud. 

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Case closed. 

Well, except for a couple of minor points. 

First, 83 percent of what number? 

Six. Yes, Merrill’s 83 percent figure that he cited to support his position that mail-in voting is unsafe was reference to the 5 out of 6 convictions in voter fraud cases over the past eight years. (It’s likely that there have been just six convictions — out of millions of ballots cast — over the last 12 years, but searching for specific charges in Alabama’s online court filing system is nearly impossible.)

That’s right, Alabama has experienced a grand total of six voter fraud convictions over the past eight years. And five of those convictions were for tampering with absentee ballots. 

However, it’s worth noting that not a single conviction involved votes in a statewide or legislative race. Four of them stemmed from the same incident in which workers rigged a city commission race in Dothan. 

That’s probably because you can’t commit enough fraud to alter the outcome of such a race. You can’t have more votes than registered voters, and you can only steal so many ballots before someone catches on. 

Regardless, six is the number of fraud cases Merrill was leaning on to justify his decision to not simply mail out absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. 

And here’s the second point that undermines this ridiculous argument: If absentee ballot fraud is so much of a problem that we can’t allow mailed ballots in a pandemic, then why hasn’t the Republican-dominated Alabama Legislature passed a single law to restrict absentee ballot access or make them more secure? 

The legislature certainly hasn’t been shy about passing voter ID laws to address in-person voter fraud. That type of fraud occurs at roughly .0000013 percent. In Alabama specifically, we’ve had one conviction for in-person fraud in the past 20-plus years. 

Still, the Alabama Legislature pushed through an absurd voter ID law a few years ago, requiring specific forms of government-issued photo IDs. 

But for the fraud that is so widespread that we’re prepared to ask people to risk their lives, nothing. 

Not a single bill. Not a single law. Not even a discussion of a bill. 

So weird. Mail-in fraud is so worrisome that we can’t risk even sending voters an absentee ballot application unless they ask for it, but not so worrisome that state lawmakers will do anything at all to address it. 

If I didn’t know better, I might think the Republicans running this state are really happy with some people voting by mail and scared to death of mail-in voting making it easy for massive numbers of Alabamians to cast votes. 

Making this whole matter even more absurd is the “fix” that Merrill and state leaders have come up with to address the concerns of people who don’t want to risk COVID-19 infection by voting in person: Lie. 

Alabama has included a new reason on applications requesting an absentee ballot. Voters can now select that they are “ill or infirmed” and unable to appear at the ballot box. Merrill, along with Gov. Kay Ivey, has instructed anyone who fears standing in line at a polling location during a pandemic to simply check that box. You don’t have to be ill or infirmed to do so. 

Swell. 

Merrill loves to repeat the line you’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts, and he should live by that now. Because the facts are decidedly against him on this. 

There is no evidence that mail-in voting is more susceptible to fraud. There is no evidence that the absentee ballot system in this state has been subjected to widespread fraud. The only fraud Merrill can cite are six cases from small-town races, where the people involved had access to multiple ballots because of their employment. 

In truth, there’s only one reason mail-in voting won’t be an option here: The more people who vote, the fewer Republicans get elected.

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Opinion | It should be clear by now: Kaepernick was right

Josh Moon

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A lot of people owe Colin Kaepernick an apology. 

If nothing else, surely the last few weeks of horrible, horrible racial incidents have left even the most adamant Kap haters reconsidering their positions.

Maybe, just maybe, they’re thinking the man has a point: That justice in this country isn’t color blind.

And that the promises of justice and equality, represented by the United States flag and anthem, often fall well short for black men in this country. 

Then again, if you didn’t understand before now, there’s a good chance that watching ANOTHER black man be choked to death in broad daylight on an American street by a police officer — as three other police officers defended him — then you’re probably not inclined to understand now. 

George Floyd, the man we’ve all now witnessed dying on a Minneapolis street, as he begged a cop to let him breathe, did not deserve to die. Hell, he didn’t even deserve to be handcuffed and tossed down on the street, much less to have a cop put his knee on his throat until he died. 

A store thought Floyd was forging a check. A person at the store called the cops. And a few minutes later Floyd was dead. 

This, in a nutshell, is why Kaepernick began his protest several years ago. Why he sacrificed his NFL career. Why he has endured the death threats and vitriol. 

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Because these sorts of awful acts are far too common for black men in America. The prevalence of the cell phone camera has made that abundantly clear over the last several years. 

It’s hard to imagine how many of these incidents were swept under the rug in years past. Especially after the actions of other cops, district attorneys and judges to protect the dirtiest of cops have also been exposed. 

That sad fact was highlighted in the Ahmaud Arbery shooting in Georgia in February. Even with video evidence, it took a new DA and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation becoming involved before the two men who hunted Arbery down were arrested. 

All because one of the men was a retired investigator who worked for the DA’s office. 

Because why mess up the life of a white man simply for shooting one black man who might have done something at some time? 

But the deck stacking won’t stop with the arrest. 

If the murder of Greg Gunn in Montgomery back in 2016 taught us anything, it’s that the entire system is rigged to ensure the bad cops never face full justice for their crimes. 

After Gunn, who was walking home after a poker game in his neighborhood, was murdered steps from his own front porch by a white cop who thought he looked suspicious, the cop was — to the shock of almost everyone — arrested within a week and before a grand jury could rule. 

Other cops — even ones who privately admitted to me that the cop, Aaron Smith, was in the wrong — pitched one hell of a hissy fit when the arrest warrant was issued. They threatened a walk-out. They showed up to sit in the courtroom during one of Smith’s early hearings. The mayor of the city vowed to keep Smith on the payroll. 

And then the real shenanigans started. 

Judges started to bail on the case — eight in all. The Alabama Supreme Court issued an unprecedented ruling that removed a black judge from the case. The appointed judge moved the trial from 70-percent-black Montgomery to 70-percent-white Dale County. 

After all of that, and even with Smith admitting to investigators that he never had probable cause to stop, chase or shoot Gunn, the best prosecutors could do was a manslaughter conviction. 

And in one final slap to the faces of Gunn’s family, Smith was released on bond while he appeals his conviction. He’s out today, having served only a few weeks to this point for a murder committed more than four years ago. 

This is the system that black Americans must traverse in this country. One that leaves black parents rightfully concerned that the men and women all of us white people call for protection might just be the executioners of their children. 

The rights guaranteed to us in the Constitution are not based on skin color. But too often, the protection of those rights by cops, DAs and judges is. 

That’s not right. And all of us should be willing to say so. 

And maybe admit that Kaepernick had a point.

 

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