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Black disabled veteran sentenced to spend 60 months in prison for medical marijuana

A 2016 arrest for marijuana that has turned into a 60-month sentence in an Alabama penitentiary for a disabled veteran from Arizona is drawing national attention.

Brandon Moseley

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Sean Worsley (VIA ALABAMA APPLESEED)

A 2016 arrest for marijuana that has turned into a 60-month sentence in an Alabama penitentiary for a disabled veteran from Arizona is drawing national attention.

On June 30, Alabama Appleseed director Leah Nelson wrote an account of an arrest and pending imprisonment of a Black disabled veteran that could not have happened in many other states.

The story has been picked up by The New York Times and a number of national news outlets.

Sean Worsley, a disabled Black veteran, and his wife, Eboni, were arrested in Pickens County in August 2016. The Worsleys had visited Eboni’s family in Mississippi and were on their way to North Carolina to visit his family. They made the life-altering mistake of stopping to purchase gas in Alabama on their way to North Carolina.

Sean was wounded in Iraq. The 33-year-old veteran is disabled with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder from his service in Iraq. He uses medical marijuana to calm his nightmares and soothe his back pain. His medical marijuana was prescribed and purchased in Arizona, where it has been legal since 2011.

A Gordo police officer approached the Worsleys at the gas station. He said their music was too loud, was a violation of the Gordo noise ordinance and asked to search the vehicle. The Worsleys assented, believing they had broken no laws. That was a mistake. Marijuana is still illegal in Alabama even if you purchased it in one of the states where it is legal.

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The officer said that he smelled marijuana and asked the couple about it. Sean told him he was a disabled veteran and had a medical marijuana card.

“I explained to him that Alabama did not have medical marijuana. I then placed the suspect in handcuffs,” the report reads.

Eboni told the officer that the marijuana was behind the seat. The officer found the marijuana and the rolling papers and pipe Sean used to smoke it, along with a six-pack of beer, a bottle of vodka, and some pain pills, for which Eboni had a prescription. Both of them were arrested.

Eboni’s pills weren’t in the original bottle, which the officer said constituted a felony. The couple were both charged and spent six days in jail, but that was just the beginning of their Alabama legal saga.

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Once the Worsleys were released on bond, they paid $400 to get their car out of impound and had to have the car professionally cleaned because venison they had been transporting to North Carolina went bad.

When they returned to Arizona, they found the charges made it difficult for them to maintain housing and stability. They moved to Nevada and leased a house.

Almost a year later, the bail bondsman called and told them the Alabama judge was revoking bonds on all the cases he managed. They had to rush back, or he would lose the money he had put up for their bond, and they would be charged with failing to appear in court. They borrowed money to return to Alabama.

When they got to court, the Worsleys were taken to separate rooms. Eboni explained that Sean was disabled with serious cognitive issues and needed a guardian to help him understand the process and ensure he made an informed decision.

Eboni claims that Sean told her prosecutors told him that if he didn’t sign the plea agreement that they would have to stay incarcerated until December and that they would charge her with the same charges.

Rather than see his wife go to jail he signed the agreement.

Sean’s plea agreement included 60 months of probation, plus drug treatment and thousands of dollars in fines, fees and court costs.

Because the Worsleys lived in Arizona at the time of their arrest, his probation was transferred to Arizona, instead of Nevada, so they broke their lease agreement and moved back to Arizona. Sean’s Arizona probation officer, however, told them that their month-to-month rental did not constitute a permanent address.

At her direction, they contacted Sean’s probation officer in Alabama, who told them to return to Pickens County. They were short on funds so tried to do it by proxy. Drug treatment was another part of the terms of the probation.

Sean was denied treatment by the VA because smoking cannabis for medical purposes “does not meet criteria for a substance use disorder or meet need for substance abuse treatment.”

Eboni is a certified nursing assistant who works with traumatized children. Her job offer was rescinded due to the felony charge in Alabama. She also lost her clearance to work with sensitive information to which she needed access to do her job.

For a while, the Worsleys slept in their car or lived with family. In January 2019, they were homeless. Sean lost his homeless veteran benefits with the VA because Alabama had issued a fugitive warrant for his arrest after Sean missed a February court date in Pickens County. The case was referred to the district attorney’s office in March 2019.

Now Eboni’s health has failed and she needed heart surgery. Sean stopped taking on extra gigs to help her recover. To cover costs, the couple took out a title loan and lost Eboni’s truck when they could not keep up with the payments. With no transportation, they lost their home.

Sean’s benefits resumed in August 2019, but to save money, he failed to pay the $250 to renew his medical marijuana card. In 2020, Sean was arrested at a traffic stop in Arizona and the officer found that he possessed marijuana without a valid medical marijuana card.

Pickens County demanded that he be extradited back to Alabama at a cost to the state of Alabama of $4,345. That was added to the $3,833.40 he already owed in fines, fees and court costs.

On April 28, a Pickens County judge sentenced Mr. Worsley to 60 months in prison. That sentence would already have begun if it were not for the chronic prison overcrowding and the COVID-19 crisis that has gripped the prison system.

Sean has been in the Pickens County jail since early 2020. On April 28, the judge revoked his probation and sentenced him to 60 months in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Sean’s mother hired an attorney to appeal the case, but that process has just begun and most inmates begin their sentence while the case is under appeal.

Former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard was sentenced to a four-year sentence four years ago and has not served a day, but Sean Worsley does not have the friends that Hubbard has. He is in the Pickens County jail awaiting transport to a prison in Alabama.

Eboni is in the hospital for more heart surgery, and Sean will leave behind two children from a prior relationship, ages 12 and 14.

“I feel like I’m being thrown away by a country I went and served for,” Sean wrote in a letter to Alabama Appleseed. “I feel like I lost parts of me in Iraq, parts of my spirit and soul that I can’t ever get back.”

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he is aghast that this could happen in Alabama.

“This is an anomaly. This is not the norm,” Ward said. “Most police departments in Alabama do not arrest people anymore solely for marijuana possession.”

Ward said usually when someone is charged with marijuana possession, they are charged with other felonies and marijuana possession is an add-on charge.

Ward said that marijuana possession is a class D offense under the sentencing reform package that he sponsored, which passed the Alabama Legislature in 2016. With a class D offense, there is no prison time.

In Sean Worsley’s case, the arresting officer in Gordo determined that the marijuana was not for personal use and thus charged Sean with a Class C offense. The arresting officer is no longer with the Gordo police department.

Ward told APR that out of the 23,000 inmates in the Alabama Correctional system, there are only 60 or 70 there just for marijuana offenses.

“They got arrested for a whole truckload, semi-truckloads even, for trafficking,” Ward said, not the small amount that Worsley will lose five years of freedom over.

Ward said that the state passed sentencing reform in 2016 so that things like this could not happen, but there was a lag time between passage and implementation, so Worsley was likely charged under the pre-reform standards.

Chey Garrigan, the executive director of Alabama Cannabis Industry Association, said the non-profit advocacy group is fighting to change Alabama’s marijuana laws so that medical marijuana is legal in this state and so that travelers like Sean Worsley don’t have to fear long incarcerations for amounts of marijuana that would be legal in 33 states.

“The Alabama Cannabis Industry Association, is extremely passionate about working with policymakers to bring about a necessary compassion for social justice,” Garrigan told APR.

The Alabama Senate has passed medical marijuana bills, sponsored by Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, in both 2019 and 2020, but the bills have never come before the Alabama House of Representatives for a vote.

This year the legislative session was interrupted by the coronavirus crisis before the House could consider the Senate bill.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Health

Alabama breaks daily COVID-19 case, hospitalization record again Thursday

Coronavirus hospitalizations reached another record high for the fourth time in so many days.

Eddie Burkhalter

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An aerial view of Huntsville and Huntsville Hospital, where medical staff are treating a record number of COVID-19 patients.

For a second straight day, Alabama’s daily COVID-19 case count was at a record high on Thursday, and coronavirus hospitalizations reached another record high for the fourth time in so many days.

The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 3,531 new cases Thursday, and the state has averaged 2,461 cases each day for the last two weeks, a 28 percent increase over the previous two weeks. 

The latest White House Coronavirus Task Force state report for Alabama, released Sunday, shows that shows 90 percent of Alabama counties had moderate or high levels of community transmission last week, while 64 percent had high transmission levels. The state ranked 19th highest in the percentage of tests that were positive. 

Coronavirus is surging across the country, with cases per day increasing more than seven times the levels seen in the U.S. before the summer surge, and hospitalizations are three times as high now as then, according to the report. The U.S. reported record high cases and deaths Wednesday. 

“It must be made clear that if you are over 65 or have significant health conditions, you should not enter any indoor public spaces where anyone is unmasked due to the immediate risk to your health,” the report states. “You should have groceries and medications delivered.” 

The report warns that for those under 40 “you need to assume you became infected during the Thanksgiving period” if you gathered beyond your immediate household. 

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“Most likely, you will not have symptoms; however, you are dangerous to others, and you must isolate away from anyone at increased risk,” the report continues. 

The number of people in Alabama hospitals with COVID-19 on Thursday reached 1,827. That’s nearly 40 percent higher than two weeks ago. Huntsville Hospital had a record-high 338 COVID-19 patients on Thursday, after a string of record-setting daily hospitalizations. UAB Hospital was caring for a record 127 COVID-19 patients Wednesday and 125 on Thursday.

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Testing statewide remains low. The average positivity rate over the last week was 34 percent. Public health experts say it should be below 5 percent to ensure adequate testing is being done to prevent cases from going undetected. 

The state averaged 8,517 tests each day over the last two weeks, down from the two week average of 9,407 recorded on Nov. 26.

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National

U.S. Chamber announces support for a coronavirus aid bill before Christmas

The Chamber is supporting a $908 billion bipartisan stimulus proposal.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Wednesday that it strongly supports coronavirus relief legislation introduced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers Tuesday.

“For pandemic relief to become law, it must be bipartisan,” said Neil Bradley, the executive vice president and chief policy officer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We are greatly encouraged that a bipartisan group of House and Senate members along with the Problem Solvers Caucus have released an outline that can potentially break the partisan gridlock that has prevented long-overdue pandemic relief. Between this effort and the recent revisions to the Senate Republican proposal — which maintains critical elements especially with respect to liability protection — we believe there is an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to negotiate a bill that can become law.”

While it is critical that lawmakers get the details right, time is of the essence. American families cannot wait until next year, Bradley said.

“The Chamber urges lawmakers to support bipartisan efforts to enact pandemic relief in the coming weeks,” he said. “We also urge lawmakers to work with the business community to ensure that relief reaches small businesses as soon as possible and that liability reforms provide meaningful protections like in the ‘Safe to Work Act’.”

Before the election, House Democrats passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus package that included stimulus checks for every family in America. That costly package was dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate like their earlier $4.4 trillion HEROES Act proposal, which they passed in the early summer. Senate Republicans supported a $500 billion “skinny” package that failed because Senate Democrats filibustered. Senate Democrats also killed a $500 billion extension of the Payroll Protection Program.

The $908 billion bipartisan stimulus proposal does not mail out a second round of checks to every family like the CARES Act did. To get Democratic support, this bill — unlike the two Republican bills — does include $160 billion in support for state and local governments. Small businesses would receive $288 billion, at least partially through the Paycheck Protection Program. The PPP loans would keep people on payrolls through the holiday season and into next year. The unemployed would be paid an additional $300 per week in federal unemployment benefits for four months, totaling $180 billion. There is also $82 billion earmarked for education and $16 billion for vaccine development and distribution.

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The latest bipartisan proposal was put together in the Senate by Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Mark Warner of Virginia and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, along with Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine and Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah.

In the House of Representatives, it is supported by Democrats Dean Phillips of Minnesota, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, and Republicans Fred Upton of Michigan, Tom Reed of New York, Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio and Dusty Johnson of South Dakota.

In a joint news conference, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said that they could support the legislation but that they want some tweaks to it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, called the bill a “waste of time,” saying that he thought it was too big and is still supporting his $500 billion stimulus bill. Republicans say they are concerned that a large third stimulus bill would only add to the debt.

The incoming Biden administration’s transition team is also supporting the bill.

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the world’s largest business organization representing companies of all sizes across every sector of the economy. Members range from the small businesses and local chambers of commerce that line the main streets of America to leading industry associations and large corporations.

(Original reporting by Newsweek, Fox News, and CBS News contributed to this report.)

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National

Department of Justice sues Ashland Housing Authority alleging racial discrimination

“AHA has engaged in a pattern or practice of race discrimination by steering applicants to housing communities based on race,” the complaint alleges. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday filed a lawsuit alleging that the Housing Authority of Ashland violated the Fair Housing Act by intentionally discriminating against Black people who applied for housing because of their race.

The DOJ in its complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, names as defendants the Housing Authority of Ashland, the Southern Development Company of Ashland Ltd., Southern Development Company of Ashland #2 Ltd. and Southern Development Company LLC, which are the private owners and managing agent of one of those housing complexes.

The department’s complaint alleges that the Ashland Housing Authority denied Black applicants the opportunity to live in overwhelmingly white housing complexes on the city’s East Side, while steering white applicants away from properties whose residents were predominantly Black in the West Side. The AHA operates seven public housing communities spread across both areas, according to the complaint.

“From at least 2012 to the present, AHA has engaged in a pattern or practice of race discrimination by steering applicants to housing communities based on race and by maintaining a racially segregated housing program,” the complaint alleges.

The federal government states in the complaint that as of June 2018, 69 percent of all AHA tenants were white, but 99 percent of tenants at Ashland Heights, on the East Side, were white, 92 percent of tenants at another East Side community were white and 91 percent of tenants at yet another East Side housing development were white.

Similar disparities were seen in public housing communities in the West Side, the complaint states.

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AHA kept separate waiting lists for both segregated areas, the complaint alleges and allowed applicants who decline offers of housing “without showing good cause, even when they decline offers for race-based reasons,” to maintain their position on the waiting list, in violation of AHA’s own policies intended to prevent race discrimination.

“On April 11, 1968, one week after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the United States enacted the Fair Housing Act to outlaw race, color and other forms of discrimination in housing. Denying people housing opportunities because of their race or color is a shameful and blatant violation of the Fair Housing Act,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division in a statement. “The United States has made great strides toward Dr. King’s dream of a nation where we will be judged by content of our character and not by the color of our skin.”

“The dream remains at least partially unfulfilled because we have not completely overcome the scourge of racial bias in housing,” Dreiband continued. “Discrimination by those who receive federal taxpayer dollars to provide housing to lower-income applicants is particularly odious because it comes with the support and authority of government. The United States Department of Justice will not stand for this kind of unlawful and intolerable discrimination. The Justice Department will continue to fight to protect the rights of all Americans to rent and own their homes without regard to their race or color.”

U.S. Attorney Prim F. Escalona for the Northern District of Alabama said in a statement that individuals and families should not have their rights affected by their race or national origin. “Our office is committed to defending the civil rights of everyone,” Escalona said.

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The lawsuit seeks damages to compensate victims, civil penalties to the government to vindicate the public interest and a court order barring future discrimination and requiring action to correct the effects of the defendants’ discrimination.

The DOJ in a press release encouraged those who believe they have been victims of housing discrimination at the defendants’ properties should contact the department toll-free at 1-800-896-7743, mailbox 9997, or by email at [email protected] Individuals who have information about this or another matter involving alleged discrimination may submit a report online at civilrights.justice.gov.

The DOJ in August the U.S. Housing and Urban Development determined that the Decatur Housing Authority was disallowing Black people to live in public housing located in riverfront towers while requiring Black people to live in less attractive apartments elsewhere.

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Economy

Clean water advocates want a comprehensive water plan for Alabama that creates jobs

Under new leadership, a plan for preserving clean water and fair access to it may be within reach in Alabama.

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Environmentalists are optimistic about making progress on water resource issues and the state’s climate change preparedness under the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden and next Congress, particularly because the president-elect is indicating that economic gains go hand-in-hand with protecting the environment.

“It’s really exciting to see the Biden administration put jobs in the same conversation with their climate and environmental policies, because for too long there has been that false argument that jobs and the environment don’t go together — that you can’t have a regulated business sector and create jobs,” said Cindy Lowry, executive director of Alabama Rivers Alliance.

On a recent post-election call with other advocates, Lowry said that the current policy outlook reinforced the importance of voting. There have been some steps forward for conservation during the presidency of Donald Trump, she said, like the president’s signing of the Great American Outdoors Act in August, but the administration has prioritized industry interests.

Under new leadership, a plan for preserving clean water and fair access to it may be within reach in Alabama.

“We have spent so much time and energy as a movement trying to defend and basically just hold the line against so many of the rollbacks, and now we can focus on moving forward on certain areas,” Lowry said.

Julian Gonzalez, a clean water advocate with the nonprofit Earthjustice in Washington D.C., said on the call that the incoming Congress will be the “most environmentally aware Congress we’ve had.” Still, the real work remains.

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“Everything needs to be one conversation, and you should be able to go call your Congressperson and say, ‘How are you going to fix America’s water problem?’ and they should have an answer, but right now that’s not the case,” Gonzalez said.

For Alabama’s water advocates, priorities are what to do with coal ash, how to prepare for droughts and flooding, improvements to water and wastewater infrastructure and providing relief to communities that have been affected by environmental degradation.

While production of coal ash has reduced due mostly to market-driven decreases in the burning of coal, enough facilities still use it that Alabama is developing its own permitting process and regulations for storing it. The Biden administration can provide leadership on the issue, Lowry said.

While many people associate water issues with drought, Lowry said the topic encompasses much more than that. Pipes that contain lead need to be replaced. There’s plenty of water, she said, but the state needs a comprehensive water plan that prepares communities for drought management, especially as more farmers use irrigation, which uses more water.

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Her organization has been working toward a state plan that can ensure fair access to water without depleting the environment of what it needs to remain stable.

With the increased frequency and intensity of storms being attributed to climate change, water infrastructure will need to be upgraded, Lowry said. Many communities rely on centralized treatment centers to handle their wastewater, and many of those facilities are overburdened and experience spills. Storms and flash floods push old pipes and at-capacity centers past their breaking points — pipes leak or burst and sewage pits overflow.

Lowry said that there has been some progress in recent years on funding infrastructure upgrades in communities and states. It’s a more bipartisan conversation than other environmental issues, and communities that have been hit hard by multiple storms are starting to have new ideas about how to rebuild themselves to better withstand the effects of climate change.

Still, Alabama’s preparedness efforts are all reactionary, which is why a comprehensive water plan is a priority, she said.

“Policies like that — proactive policies that are really forward-thinking about how we will make decisions if we do run into challenges with our environment — are something that this state has not been very strong on,” she said.

Lowry hopes for more emphasis on environmental justice, with official agencies working more with local municipalities to provide relief to communities hurt by pollution and weather events. Such problems are characteristic of the Birmingham area, where Lowry is based, and the Black Belt.

She wants to see stronger permitting processes for industry projects and easier access to funding for cleanups in communities that need them. North Birmingham activists have been trying for years to get a Superfund site there on the Superfund National Priorities List.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to address these problems, Lowry said. Having multiple avenues for access to funding is important so that all communities have options. Smaller communities can’t always pay back loans, so they need access to grants.

Lowry emphasized that new jobs must be created without exacerbating climate change. Although Alabama tends to look to heavy industry for economic gains, she said she’s hopeful that a different approach by the Biden administration will trickle to the state level.

Lowry also said that conversations about climate change in Alabama have to be put in terms of what is happening in Alabama.

For her and other environmentalists working in the Deep South, it’s all about relationships and establishing trust. The environment becomes a less partisan issue when you focus on the basics, she said, because everyone wants clean water.

“I’ve found it much more easy to have conversations with elected officials at the state level in places like Alabama, where people do kind of grow up a little closer to nature and conservation, and [by] just kind of meeting people where they are,” Lowry said.

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