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Ivey signs civil asset forfeiture law

Evan Mealins

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On Monday afternoon, Gov. Ivey signed into law the Alabama Forfeiture Information Reporting Act, which will shine a light on law enforcement’s often secretive use of civil forfeiture. Senate Bill 191, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, passed both the House and Senate unanimously during this year’s legislative session.

Civil forfeiture is a practice that allows law enforcement to seize private property they allege has been involved in criminal activity and subsequently keep, sell or destroy it.

In Alabama, law enforcement needs only probable cause to seize property, leaving room for law enforcement agencies to abuse the practice. And according to a report by the Institute for Justice, they could — and can — get away with it. Alabama received a failing grade in all 6 different metrics for forfeiture transparency and accountability.

Police must report what they seize

The new law, SB191, requires law enforcement agencies to enter details of all seizures into a public database. Agencies must report the date, description, and location of the seizure, the agency involved, any arrests connected with the seizure, any claimants, and the disposition of property, as well as the proceeds agencies collected from the forfeiture property. Agencies’ seizure and forfeiture activity, along with the amount of proceeds received, will be aggregated into an annual report by the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center Commission and made available online. In addition, law enforcement’s civil forfeiture funds will be audited.

SB191 largely tracks what has been collected by the Alabama Forfeiture Accountability System, which is a voluntary reporting database that was announced earlier this year by the Alabama District Attorneys Association. However, both the Alabama Forfeiture Accountability System and the new system created by SB191 do not cover how law enforcement agencies spend their forfeiture money, which is “generated and spent outside the normal appropriations process and evades public scrutiny,” according to a release from the Institute for Justice.

“By itself, improved transparency cannot fix the fundamental problems with civil forfeiture—namely, the property rights abuses it permits and the temptation it creates to police for profit,” said Jennifer McDonald, an IJ research analyst who co-authored the transparency report. “Though limited, the Alabama Forfeiture Information Reporting Act is a welcome first step for keeping both the public and legislators well-informed about civil forfeiture in Alabama.”

This law comes at the heels of a new study from the Institute for Justice released earlier this month which indicates that civil forfeiture does not help police fight crime.

Because agencies receive 100 percent of all proceeds from the forfeited property in Alabama, there is an incentive for law enforcement to seize. The study found that when local economies suffer, forfeiture activity increases, which suggests that forfeiture is used as a way for agencies to improve their bottom line.

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“This study shows Alabama policymakers can undertake serious and much-needed forfeiture reforms without jeopardizing police effectiveness,” said Lee McGrath, IJ’s senior legislative counsel. “This study also confirms what experienced legislators in Alabama have long known: The state’s forfeiture laws encourage the pursuit of revenue over the pursuit of public safety and justice. In the next session, we urge the Alabama Legislature to end civil forfeiture and replace it with criminal forfeiture. The legislature should also end forfeiture’s perverse financial incentives and direct forfeiture proceeds to neutral accounts.”

Criminal forfeiture is a system that requires a conviction, typically of a felony, for property to become subject to forfeiture in most situations. Currently, 16 states have criminal forfeiture laws, and the Southern Poverty Law Center is pushing for Alabama to follow suit.

Alabama is now the 23rd state to enact requirements to report and track seizures and forfeitures since 2014.

Supreme Court weighs in

The new law also comes shortly after a critical Supreme Court case regarding civil forfeiture, Timbs v. Indiana.

In the case, Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty to selling $225 of heroin to undercover police officers. In addition to being sentenced to house arrest, probation and to pay $1,200 in fees and fines, state officials seized Timbs’ Land Rover, worth $42,000. His car was purchased with money from his father’s insurance policy.

On Feb. 20, the Supreme Court, ruled unanimously 9-0 that the 8th Amendment limits states and localities’ ability to seize property. The state violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the 8th Amendment.

“Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed ‘in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence,’ for ‘fines are a source of revenue,’ while other forms of punishment ‘cost a state money.’ This concern is scarcely hypothetical,” Ginsburg wrote.

 

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Crime

Alabama Democratic Party chair: “Where systemic racism endures there are no winners”

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Chair of the Alabama Democratic Party on Monday called for Alabamians to come together to address systemic racism and inequality in the wake of the death of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. 

“I am angry and I am hurt. Unfortunately, I am not shocked,” said state Representative and  Chair of the Alabama Democratic Party Chris England, in a statement. 

“Inequality pervades every facet of our society. Confronting this truth is difficult, especially for those who have never experienced their race as an issue. For Black people, watching George Floyd be killed on camera felt not only horrifying, but familiar. It felt familiar because we know what it is like to be harassed by an officer or made to feel unwelcome in a certain part of town. We know what it is like for our schools, neighborhoods, and economic concerns to be ignored outright,” England continued. 

“I stand with each person who is fighting for the just and fair treatment of every Alabamian. Until ideologies rooted in racism and hate are confronted head-on, communities of color will suffer. Until we expose the lies keeping us divided, communities who do not experience their race as an issue will continue misdirecting their frustrations, and scapegoat communities of color. Where systemic racism endures there are no winners, only losers. 

“Unity demands justice. I call on every Alabamian, especially people of faith, to be on the frontlines of love and compassion. We have not come this far to only come this far.”

Two days of peaceful protests in Birmingham turned violent early Sunday morning, and Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin declared a state of emergency and enacted  a city-wide curfew to prevent a repeat of the rioting that saw numerous business burned and at least two reporters attacked.

Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday announced the authorization of Alabama National Guard members, but said it was no immediate need to activate them.

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Alabama attorney general signals end to fight over Birmingham’s Confederate monument

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Monday said the city of Birmingham would get a one-time $25,000 fine if city officials remove the Confederate monument in the city’s Linn Park, which, if done, would bring an end to a years-long battle between state lawmakers and local officials in Alabama’s largest city.

The monument was at the epicenter of a riotous protest early Monday morning, following peaceful protests in the city late Sunday over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

Rioters attempted unsuccessfully to tear down the monument, and later burned businesses and attacked at least two journalists.

“The Alabama Monuments Preservation Act provides a singular avenue for enforcement — the filing of a civil complaint in pursuit of a fine, which the Alabama Supreme Court has determined to be a one-time assessment of $25,000. The Act authorizes no additional relief,” Marshall said in a statement Monday. 

“Should the City of Birmingham proceed with the removal of the monument in question, based upon multiple conversations I have had today, city leaders understand I will perform the duties assigned to me by the Act to pursue a new civil complaint against the City,” Marshall continued. “In the aftermath of last night’s violent outbreak, I have offered the City of Birmingham the support and resources of my office to restore peace to the City.”

Marshall’s statement came after Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin earlier on Monday said that he planned to remove the Confederate monument and pay a fine rather than witness more chaos.

Woodfin on Monday also declared a state of emergency and a city-wide curfew. 

Following the white supremacist rally in Virginia in 2017, some Birmingham City Council members wanted the Confederate monument in the park torn down. 

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Instead, former Birmingham Mayor William Bell had the monument covered by plywood, and a year later, after Randall Woodfin replaced Bell as mayor, the Alabama Legislature passed a law forbidding the city — and all municipalities in the state — from removing or altering a Confederate monument.

The law imposes a $25,000 fine for each violation. 

Comedian Jermaine “Funnymaine” Johnson on Sunday called for demonstrators to tear down the monument.

Johnson told Al.com on Monday that he hated to see the protest turn violent, and said he never encouraged violence but does still call for the monument’s removal. 

“If you think I incited violence, you don’t think monuments like this and the policies behind it haven’t incited violence for decades, you just need to think again,” Johnson told Al.com.

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Birmingham mayor declares emergency, city-wide curfew after violence

Eddie Burkhalter

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Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin on Monday declared a state of emergency and a city-wide curfew after violent protests early Monday morning that saw businesses burned and journalists attacked. 

Birmingham will be under a city-wide curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. beginning Monday evening. Anyone not at home or at work during those hours could be arrested, Woodfin said. The curfew is to remain in effect indefinitely, as city officials monitor the situation, he said. 

“George Floyd is a name that we all know now, not just in the city of Minneapolis, not just in the city of Birmingham, not just in America but the world,” Woodfin said, referencing the killing of Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis that’s sparked protests across the country. 

There were many protestors who worked with the city to conduct peaceful protests in recent days, Woodfin said, but there were also local looters and anarchists bent on causing chaos and damage late Sunday into early Monday. 

“I want you to know that I 100 percent support civil disobedience. That is very different from civil unrest,” Woodfin said. “I support activism and your right to peacefully assemble. I don’t support mobs of people destroying things just because.” 

Woodfin said because of the violence he’s called for a citywide curfew, and plans to have the Thomas Jefferson statue at the Jefferson County Courthouse, which was vandalized Monday morning, removed despite a state law that makes doing so illegal.

He’d rather pay that fine than see continued civil unrest connected to it, he said. 

“That means no more parade or vigils. No more demonstrations,” Woodfin said of the citywide curfew. 

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Woodfin also asked that anyone with video evidence or knowledge about the attack of two journalists early Monday morning to turn that evidence in. 

“You saw innocent people in the media get physically assaulted and did not do anything,” Woodfin said, and asked those who video the violence and looting to call Crime Stoppers at 205-254-7777 and arrange to turn in those videos. 

“These two journalists deserve some form of being made whole, because what happened to them was not right. They didn’t deserve it,” Woodfin said 

Birmingham Police Chief Patric Smith during the press conference said 14 businesses reported burglaries and 13 had extensive damage, and that those numbers are likely to increase as more reports come in. The department is reviewing video from the protests to identify those who committed the crimes, he said. 

“This police department intends to follow up,” Smith said 

“The Birmingham Police Department will be out in force. While we do not want to make arrest. I think you’ve placed us in a position to whereas we will,” Smith said. 

There were also 22 fire calls, 5 of them at commercial buildings, three house fires and  multiple car and dumpster fires, Birmingham Fire Chief Cory Moon said. Twenty-four people were arrested in connection with the protests, Woodfin said. 

“What happened last not will not define the city of Birmingham,” Woodfin said. “How we respond and move forward. How we embrace each other as one community. If we’re going to be for justice, let’s be for justice and let’s cut everything else out.” 

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Three more prison workers, another inmate test positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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Three more prison workers have tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the sixth prison worker to self-report positive test results in two days. 

Additionally, a man serving at the St. Clair Correctional Facility also tested positive for the virus, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) announced in a Friday press release. 

Three workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka all self-reported positive test results and are self-quarantined, according to the release. That makes 12 workers with confirmed coronavirus cases at that facility, and 61 cases among staff across the state’s prisons, although 16 have been cleared to return to work. 

The man serving at St. Clair had been treated at a local hospital earlier this month for a preexisting medical condition and tested negative for COVID-19 at the time, according to ADOC. He returned to a local hospital a short time later and tested positive for COVID-19, and remains at the hospital for treatment, according to the release.

There were four confirmed cases of COVID-19 among inmates at the St. Clair prison as of Thursday, according to ADOC, and one inmate there, the terminally-ill 66-year-old Dave Thomas, died at a local hospital less than 24 hours after testing positive for the virus. One worker at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19 but has since been cleared to return to work. 

A small living area in St. Clair prison’s infirmary, where the man was living, has been placed on level two quarantine, meaning incarcerated people there will be restricted to their living areas for meals and all other activities, according to ADOC. 

The entire infirmary has been placed on level one quarantine, so inmates inside will be monitored for symptoms and have temperatures checked twice daily. 

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There have been 12 confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates, and three remained active as of Friday, according to ADOC. All of the inmates who’ve tested positive for the virus had preexisting medical conditions and were tested for COVID-19 at hospitals. 

Testing of inmates in general remains very low, however. Less than one percent of the state’s inmate population has been tested, or 156 of approximately 22,000. 

Prison reform advocates have expressed concern that without broader testing, the extent of the virus’s spread inside the overcrowded prisons won’t be known, and more people will become infected due to the spread from asymptomatic people. 

The state’s prisons were at 170 percent capacity in January, the last month in which ADOC has made monthly statistical reports publicly available.

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