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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Teachers are scared and frustrated about starting school. Many aren’t coming back

Teachers are scared to death. And the biggest reason they’re scared to death is because they haven’t seen any sort of real, aggressive plan from anyone. 

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Terrified. Confused. Frustrated. Those are the terms teachers — both fulltime and substitute teachers — from across Alabama used to describe how they feel about schools reopening in about a month in this state. 

Over the course of the last week, I have spoken to dozens of teachers, principals, administrators and employees from school systems around the state. On Sunday, I used social media to solicit more comments, asking teachers and school employees if they have been provided specifics about the upcoming school year and how they’re expected to handle students and staff testing positive for COVID-19. 

Their answers were eye-opening and infuriating. 

Because it was obvious that the federal Department of Education — at the urging of the White House — and the Alabama State Department of Education — at the urging of the feds — are seemingly willing to march thousands of students, teachers and staff into school buildings and tightly-packed rooms in the middle of a pandemic without a plan to protect any of them. 

Not even a little bit. 

Among the shocking pieces of information provided by teachers and employees, these stood out: 

  • There is no plan to screen students, teachers or staff prior to school starting. 
  • There is no statewide plan for quarantining students, teachers or staff should someone at a school test positive. 
  • There will be no requirement that students wear masks. 
  • There is no statewide plan to contact trace any positive student, teacher or staff member. 
  • Teachers don’t know if they’ll be required to quarantine if they come in contact with a coronavirus-positive student or employee, and they don’t know if a quarantine will eat into their leave days. 
  • No one knows if there will be mandatory testing of students if another student in class tests positive, or who will pay for such tests. 
  • There is currently no plan in place to address the very obvious teacher shortage that is about to strike Alabama schools. 

Among all of those problems — and all of the unknowns that will go into them — a teacher shortage is probably the most certain, and possibly even the most important. 

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Because Alabama had a big problem with getting enough teachers to fill its classrooms prior to the current pandemic. Now, as we near a ridiculously-early start date, and teachers across the state begin to realize that there simply is no plan in place to protect them, hundreds are weighing their options. 

And the mass exodus could be staggering. 

Which, honestly, shouldn’t be surprising. Even if there were a great plan in place, most teachers over the age of 60 would be on the fence about working during this pandemic. In Alabama, that’s a decent percentage of the state’s total number of teachers and a big percentage of substitute teachers. 

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Now, add to that list all of the teachers who are at-risk or have underlying conditions that put them at greater risk should they contract COVID-19. 

Then add all of the teachers who can afford to either not work or who have other employment options. 

Now, add in ALSDE’s complete and utter joke of a “roadmap” for reopening — which only served to scare the living hell out of most school employees — and you’ve got a serious mess. 

“I know for a fact that eight of my teachers are probably not coming back and it could be as high as 12,” a principal of a school in Montgomery told me. “There aren’t people to fill those spots and we’ll be fighting with every other school in this city and surrounding area for substitutes.”

That same story is playing out all over the state. 

Because teachers are scared to death. And the biggest reason they’re scared to death is because they haven’t seen any sort of real, aggressive plan from anyone. 

Instead, the instructions appear to be: Do all of the things you were doing before, and then add in socially distancing your students, monitoring them for COVID symptoms and trying not to become sick yourself. Oh, and also maybe help with checking kids’ temps and quarantining them, since 300 or so of our state’s schools don’t have nurses. 

Would you go back to work in that environment if you had any other choice? 

There is, however, a glimmer of hope. But only a glimmer. 

Gov. Kay Ivey has apparently taken a liking to the Safely Opening Schools (SOS) plan that I talked about a couple of weeks ago. That’s the plan from the school nurses association, which is backed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, that would use CARES Act funds to put a nurse in every school and also build a stand-alone first aid/quarantine area for every school. It would also provide on-site testing and equipment to check the temps of students at a variety of different points. 

Ivey has invited several lawmakers to speak about the plan to the state Board of Education during Tuesday’s work session. 

APR has also learned that the SOS plan is one of several being considered by the White House to be part of its recommendations to schools across the country. 

That plan isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t address all of the problems that teachers, students and staff will face every day. But it does take some burdens off teachers, and could help prevent flare-ups and outright hot spots. 

And maybe, just maybe, it’ll ease some of the very real, very understandable fears.

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Science is hard for Alabama, Del Marsh

Josh Moon

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Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh at a press conference with Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday April 28, 2020 in Montgomery, Ala. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

On a good day in Alabama, science is not our friend. On bad days, during complicated, scary times, when science and medicine are confusing and offering hard solutions to tough problems, watching our people try to science is like watching a monkey fold a fitted sheet. 

Such has been the case in the days of COVID-19, when this state’s conservative leadership has been bamboozled by the great invisible enemy and left choosing between letting thousands die or potentially losing money and jobs.

Which is really no choice at all for them, even though they did pretend for a week. 

In reality, the actual choice for Alabama leadership has been what it always is: A choice between Option 1, which is supported by facts and science and experts and data, and Option 2: What they really want to believe, regardless of facts and data and science and experts. 

You can probably guess which way the majority has gone. 

We were one of the first states to “reopen” our economy, and despite skyrocketing new cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Kay Ivey has refused to reassert any restrictions that were lifted. Bars are still open. Restaurants are serving dine-in customers. 

It’s like life is going on just fine. Even though more than 1,000 people have died in less than five months, and hundreds more are packed into Alabama hospitals with a life-threatening virus. 

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Still, our politicians are clinging to the dumbest of beliefs and are actively pushing debunked theories that they really want to believe despite no evidence or even evidence to the contrary. 

Like Senate President Del Marsh, who, when asked Thursday about Alabama’s trend of record-breaking numbers of new cases, said he hopes more people get coronavirus because “we start reaching an immunity the more people who have it and get through it.” 

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Now, as much as it warms my heart to hear an Alabama conservative embrace evolution, Marsh is, in fact, wrong. Not only is there little evidence pointing to effective “herd immunity,” but there is evidence indicating that the theory is completely incorrect. 

Sweden, which was the most often cited example by your idiot friends on Facebook, tried the whole “herd immunity” approach. It shut down nothing. Let people have their freedoms. Didn’t impose any requirements for masks. It was hailed as a beacon of light by the far-right nuts. 

Fox News isn’t airing those puff pieces anymore. 

Sweden has turned into the world’s cautionary tale. Deaths in the country are 40 percent higher than in the US. They’re significantly higher than in neighboring countries. And Sweden’s economy has been hammered, just like everyone else’s economy. 

So, if you’re scoring at home, Sweden got all the economic catastrophe plus an off-the-charts death rate. 

Which is what Del Marsh apparently wants for Alabama. Or maybe he doesn’t know what he wants, because shortly after saying that he hopes a bunch more people get coronavirus, he also said that he doesn’t want anymore deaths. Which is a lot like saying you want a bunch more ice cream but no more calories. 

Of course, the real problem in all of this is that we’ve handled this crisis — both here in Alabama and at the federal level — in the same manner in which Republicans handle everything: As if there are only two, stark options and no middle ground. 

Because there’s simply no way we could both open businesses and impose meaningful limitations that scientists and doctors tell us help stop the spread of the virus. There’s no way we could allow some businesses to open while keeping other shuttered (and providing those closed businesses with needed money for survival). There’s no way we could have opened up things like beaches and parks — things that science and doctors tell us are unlikely to contribute to spread — while simultaneously preventing dine-in eating at beach restaurants or shutting down entertainment businesses, like nightclubs and bars. 

No, much easier to tell everyone to get the virus and hope for the best. 

What Marsh said Thursday is dangerous and dumb. He should be condemned for it. And when this is all over, and we’re counting our dead, his words, and the failed GOP leadership through this crisis should be remembered. 

Because they contributed to this catastrophe.

 

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Opinion | The clumsier, dumber George Wallace: Donald Trump

Josh Moon

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George Wallace acknowledges the cheers of supporters at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Oct. 24, 1968. (CSU Archives/Everett Collection)

Be afraid, white people. The Blacks and Hispanics are coming for you. Coming for your children. Coming for your wives. And now, the police are being prevented from protecting you.  They’re going to take your statues. They’re going to take your jobs. They’re going to take your rights.

This is the message that the Trump re-election campaign will push. 

It is the only message they have left, as their candidate has so royally screwed up everything else he has touched. 

His precious economy is in shambles — a result of his botching the response to the coronavirus pandemic so spectacularly. There is unprecedented civil unrest — a result, in part, of his overbearing and callous attempts at “law and order” while ignoring the pleas of Black Americans seeking equal treatment. And there is a seemingly endless barrage of embarrassing news, mostly stemming from Trump’s Twitter feed and the bumbling group of imbeciles and racists that make up his cabinet and closest advisors. 

So, a culture war is all they have left. And dammit, they plan to play it like a fiddle at a bluegrass festival. 

Trump began his march down this pathway in earnest on Saturday, delivering a disgusting and divisive speech aimed at stoking fear and playing up the Black-v-white culture war. 

On Monday, after a day of golf on Sunday — because even racists rest on the sabbath — he was back at it, attacking, of all people, NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace. Reviving an old story for no apparent reason, Trump called the noose left in Wallace’s garage stall a “hoax” — an outright lie, since there was, in fact, a noose in the garage stall — and asked if Wallace had apologized. Of course, Wallace has nothing to apologize for, since he didn’t report the noose, didn’t investigate it, didn’t ask the FBI to look into it and generally handled himself with grace and dignity throughout the ordeal. 

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Unlike the president. On any given day. 

But we weren’t finished. By late Monday, Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, was on the channel your grandparents claim tells them the truth about stuff, and was sending the scared whites into full-on panic. Meadows, without an ounce of shame or the intelligence to know he should have some, exclaimed that Trump is “the only thing that stands between a mob and the American people.” 

(And by “American people,” he means white people.) 

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“First, it’s the statues. Then, it’s the businesses. Then, it’s their homes,” Meadows said. 

It’s like a dumber, clumsier, less articulate George Wallace campaign. 

But then, the entirety of Trump’s presidential run and presidency has essentially been a slightly updated, less polished George Wallace campaign. Leaning on thinly-veiled racism, stoking racial anger, massaging the fear that so many white people have of anyone who looks slightly different. 

Now, they’re going full-Wallace. Because it’s all they have. 

Trump has proven that he doesn’t care about anything or anyone, and will put his interests above the American people and the security of the country. Hell, he sold out American soldiers without batting an eye. 

So, he will burn this place to the ground, if he must. And 30 percent of the country, at least, will follow along. Happily holding tiki torches and chanting that the Jews won’t replace them, like the very fine people they are. 

That hateful rhetoric and the regression it represents — after all this country has gone through, after all the growth and all the progress — is what we should all fear the most.

 

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Has Alabama lost its independent streak?

Josh Moon

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What if I told you that Sen. Richard Shelby, outraged by the stories of laid off Alabama workers forced to camp out overnight to get unemployment compensation, was pushing his fellow senators to pump more money into states to rectify the situation? 

What if I told you that Shelby had fought to get more funding for Alabama to expand Medicaid and provide 300,000-plus Alabamians with medical coverage during the ongoing pandemic? 

What if I told you that Shelby recently condemned the Tennessee Valley Authority for shipping jobs overseas, as Americans, including many Alabamians, suffer through a recession? 

What if I told you that Shelby pushed a bipartisan bill through the Senate that would strengthen and enhance telemedicine programs? 

What if I told you that at least once a week, Shelby hosts a livestreamed press conference, in which he and guests — usually medical professionals or local leaders — discuss the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and provide the public with critical updates and behind-the-scenes details on upcoming plans to address the most pressing matters?

What if I told you that Shelby had been honored in the Senate as one of the most bipartisan lawmakers, co-sponsoring dozens of bills with senators across the aisle? 

Would all of that impress you? Make you think more highly of Sen. Shelby? 

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Well, what if I told you that I was actually talking about Doug Jones? 

Because it’s Jones who did all the above over the last month. 

That’s right — month!

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But it doesn’t matter to a good number of people in this state. Jones’ record while in the Senate, and his work ethic and his good bills that have done good things for the working people of this state, just don’t matter at all unless there’s an “R” beside his name. 

It’s a real shame that a man who has done all that in a month is running neck-and-neck, according to polling, with both of his potential opponents — Tommy Tuberville and Jeff Sessions. 

Quick: Name one bill Sessions passed in 20 years in the Senate. 

Take your time. 

Yeah, that’s what I thought. His biggest accomplishments were fighting against the Violence Against Women Act and not saying anything racist out loud. 

Tuberville, in the meantime, is quite possibly the most policy-ignorant candidate in recent history. The man knows nothing about anything, and he hasn’t even pretended to have a plan for anything. He just keeps showing up at barbecue joints, muttering stuff about football and Trump, and pretending that not knowing anything is the same as being “an outsider.” 

That — along with the little R — is apparently enough for half the state. 

And it’s a shame. 

Because if Alabamians were even a sliver as independent or stubborn as they like to pretend, this thing wouldn’t even be a contest. 

On one side, there’s a guy who’s actually working, who cares about good public policy, bipartisanship and right and wrong — a guy who locked up the clowns who killed four little black girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. 

On the other side, two guys hoping to skate by on party affiliation. 

But Jones doesn’t whine about it, even when I gave him an opportunity to do so on Thursday. He refused to take shots at anyone, and instead said it was time to get to work. His only pointed frustration was directed at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has repeatedly blocked efforts by Democrats to get more relief funds out to the American people. 

McConnell has sat on a bill sent over by the Democratic-led House, and now, Jones said, McConnell plans to draft his own relief bill. 

“That’s crazy to me,” Jones said. “We’ve had that bill for weeks now. It’s not a perfect bill by any means, but it sets up the framework. We could have worked within that and got something out to the people who need it most before the Fourth of July holiday. Now, it’s going to be after this two-week break. That’s too long.”

Jones said a big concern for him was getting money to state and local governments, which employ about 20 percent of the American workforce and have been devastated by the coronavirus shutdowns. Those issues often manifest in terrible ways, such as forcing people to sit in a parking lot to receive basic help because your state department of labor is overworked and understaffed. 

“It’s not a matter of someone being lazy or not doing their job,” Jones said, speaking specifically of the situation that has left thousands of Alabamians waiting in long lines to get routine unemployment questions answered. “It’s a matter of giving these folks the resources they need to get the job done. That’s what we’re hoping to do.”

Jones is trying. And really, I’m not sure what else you can ask for at this point.

Well, except for one petty, and utterly meaningless, thing: An R beside his name.

 

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