Predatory Lending and the Alabama Legislature

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by Dana Sweeney, Organizer

There are more payday lenders and title loan stores in Alabama than hospitals, high schools, movie theaters, and county courthouses combined. Payday lending by itself is a massive industry that harms hundreds of thousands of Alabama borrowers and their families each year.  

Each year, the payday lending industry leeches more than $100 million from the pockets of low- and middle-income Alabama borrowers. Lenders make their biggest profits by snaring borrowers in devastating debt traps. While payday lenders advertise quick and easy access to cash, the fine print on their loan products include APR interest rates up to 456%. With astronomical rates like that, small-dollar, short-term loans frequently become expensive, multi-year burdens for Alabamians. To make matters worse, most of the money that payday lenders make by trapping Alabamians in rapidly ballooning debt—an estimated $1 billion each decade—flows out of our communities and into the pockets of companies headquartered out-of-state. When these vampiric lenders sap our neighbors’ household budgets and drain money from our local economies, we all lose.  

This year, Alabama Appleseed joined with other predatory lending reform advocates to advance the 30 Days to Pay bill (SB 138, sponsored by Senator Arthur Orr, R-3). Under current law, payday loans can be issued with full repayment due in as few as 10 days. The 30 Days to Pay bill would have required payday lenders to issue loans on a 30 day repayment schedule, as is standard for virtually all other household bills. It would have significantly reduced the risk of borrowers falling into long-term debt traps by granting them more time and flexibility to repay loans, and it would have effectively cut the APR interest rate experienced by most borrowers in half (which, while remaining a deeply troubling triple-digit interest rate, would nevertheless be a substantial improvement over the current 456%).

A broad coalition of organizations joined Alabama Appleseed in advocating for the passage of SB 138, including business partners like the Birmingham Business Alliance, the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce, and the Alabama Credit Union Association, and faith partners like the State Baptist Convention, the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, and Greater Birmingham Ministries.

Unfortunately, despite broad popular support for payday reform, the legislature failed to pass SB 138. After inching through the Senate Banking & Insurance committee over the course of several months, SB 138 ended up passing the Senate on March 8, 2018, with a 20-4 vote. It then moved to the House, where Speaker Mac McCutcheon assigned it to the Financial Services committee. Even though many committee members expressed a desire to vote on the bill, Chairman Rep. Ken Johnson (R-7) refused to bring the bill up for a vote. The 30 Days to Pay bill died right where many other payday reform bills have died before it: in the House Financial Services committee.

The end of the 2018 legislative session marked yet another year in which our state lawmakers failed to protect Alabama borrowers while payday lenders lined their own pockets with cash. While most legislators have said that they support predatory lending reform, friends of the payday industry again blocked a limited reform.

The legislature’s failure to pass SB 138 was deeply disappointing, but Alabama Appleseed will continue to fight for predatory lending reform alongside impacted borrowers. Predatory lending reform remains one of the most bipartisan, popular issues in the state, and we will continue to press our officials to do what their constituents have been asking them to do for many years. We will continue to advocate for reforms like 30 Days to Pay, and we remain committed to seeing Alabama move to the gold standard of a 36% APR maximum for all small loans that is seen in many other states.

Victory for Tenants’ Rights

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By Phillip Ensler, Policy Counsel

Low-income tenants throughout Alabama will enjoy greater access to justice due to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeal’s ruling last week in Morrow v. Pake.

In a decision that will affect thousands of tenants, the court reversed the Tuscaloosa Circuit Court, and ruled that tenants who are evicted have a right under state law to later file a lawsuit for a landlord’s illegal actions while they were a resident of the property.

The tenant in the case, Bridgette Morrow, was evicted after the landlord failed to repair the unsafe living conditions she repeatedly reported about the house she rented. The law firm Winston & Straw, LLP and the Civil Legal Clinic at the University of Alabama School of Law recognized the injustice faced by Ms. Morrow endured and represented her for free to ensure she received quality legal representation. They also took on this case to protect the rights of individuals like Ms. Morrow throughout Alabama.

Alabama Appleseed, along with Legal Services Alabama (LSA) filed an amici curiae brief in support of Ms. Morrow and individuals like her in our state. We felt compelled to speak up for the rights of tenants like Ms. Morrow, who too often face eviction proceedings without any legal representation. 

The main question in the case was whether a tenant who is facing eviction is legally required to raise any claims he or she has against the landlord during the eviction proceedings, during which they are likely distracted by the prospect of imminent homelessness, or if they can bring those claims at a later date.

Preserving the right to bring a claim at a later date is essential to ensuring tenants are able to receive justice in situations where a landlord subjected them to substandard living conditions and failed to provide basic services as prescribed in the terms of the lease.

The court unequivocally agreed with Ms. Morrow’s argument that under the Alabama Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA) a tenant’s right to challenge their landlord’s illegal actions does not end with their eviction.  

The court underscored the point made in the appeal and in Alabama Appleseed and LSA’s brief that if the Alabama Legislature wanted to require such claims, they would have done so in the URLTA.

The court also agreed with our analysis that the purpose of an eviction proceeding is to focus on the issue of possession of the property, and not necessarily address the conditions and other wrongs the tenant encountered while living there.

As a result of upholding this right, tenants will have more time to find a lawyer and challenge the illegal acts of their landlord, instead of being forced to do so under the stressful and time-constrained conditions of an eviction proceedings.

While Alabama Appleseed is pleased with the court’s ruling, there is still much work to be done to create a level playing field our courtrooms. A vast majority of tenants enter the courtroom without legal representation, while the vast majority of landlords have ready access to quality counsel. As a result, the deck is already stacked against low-income tenants.

To create a more fair justice system, the State of Alabama must provide more and adequate resources for civil legal aid programs—including the Volunteers Lawyers Programs, Legal Services Alabama, and the other clinics and service providers—who provide low-income Alabamians, including many tenants, with vital access to legal representation. Only with such access to counsel will tenants and other low-income Alabamians be more likely to receive access to fair justice in the courts.

Alabama Deserves a Vote on Predatory Lending Reform

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by Dana Sweeney, Organizer

For years, there has been widespread, bipartisan agreement that we must reel in predatory payday lenders in Alabama. According to data collected by the State Banking Department, about 215,000 Alabamians took out 1.8 million payday loans between October 2016 and September 2017, averaging more than eight loans per customer. Even though payday borrowers must be able to show that they have a source of income before being issued a loan, 87% of payday borrowers in Alabama still had to take out multiple, small-dollar loans during the year to get by — almost always to meet necessary living expenses like rent, utilities, and grocery bills, or to account for emergencies like unexpected medical costs or car repairs.

As too many Alabamians know, those small-dollar loans often balloon into large-dollar debts due to high interest rates. Alabama’s payday borrowers pay over $100 million every year on average in loan fees charged to initiate loans and to “roll them over” when full repayment is not possible. There is wide-ranging public agreement that the status quo for payday lending must change, especially when that status quo means that predatory lenders issue loans with interest rates as high as 456% APR and can demand full loan repayment within as few as 10 days.  

This year, Alabama Appleseed has been working with a broad coalition of churches, community foundations, local organizations, credit unions, direct social service providers, and individuals that spans the state and the political spectrum. We are supporting the 30 Days to Pay Bill (SB 138), a simple, modest reform that would set payday loans on the same 30 day repayment schedule as all other household bills. It would start to curb runaway interest rates and prevent many of the debt traps that currently ensnare thousands upon thousands of Alabamians every year. It enjoys bipartisan support in the legislature, and it is an opportunity for the legislature to finally take a step forward on predatory lending reform after years of failing to deliver. All we need now is the chance for senators to vote on it.

The bill has been slowly inching its way through the Senate, but it has not yet been put on the calendar to be debated and voted on. If this bill doesn’t start picking up steam soon, we may run out of time — again — to protect Alabama’s payday borrowers. Alabama deserves a vote. Alabama’s borrowers deserve a vote. We urge you to contact your senator and ask them to do everything in their power to propel this bill forward.

SAMPLE CALL SCRIPT

“Hello, my name is _________________, and I am one of Senator ____________’s constituents from ______[town]_______. I’m calling today because I would like to urge Senator ___________ to do everything in [his/her/their] power to ensure that SB 138, the 30 Days to Pay Bill, passes through the Senate. So many of us have been patient and persistent all session while waiting for this bill to advance through the Senate, just as we have been waiting for years for the legislature to deliver on predatory lending reform. We have waited long enough, and so have Alabama’s borrowers, who continue to suffer because of the legislature’s failure to address this issue. Please let Senator ________ know that SB 138 is a top priority for me as a voter, and that I want to see [him/her/them] doing everything in [his/her/their] power to support and advance this bill. It is bipartisan. It is simple. It is overwhelmingly supported by the public. We deserve a vote, and Alabama’s borrowers deserve relief. Thank you.”

SAMPLE EMAIL SCRIPT

“Dear Senator ____________,

I am writing you to urge you to do everything in your power to pass SB 138, the 30 Days to Pay Bill, through the Senate. As someone who lives in _____[town]______, I know how damaging predatory lending practices are to our community, and as a voter, one of my top priorities is seeing SB 138 passed. So many of us have been writing and calling during this legislative session, and there has been bipartisan agreement that we need predatory lending reform for years. It’s past time that something is done, and it’s past time for the Senate to vote on SB 138. Please work with your colleagues to pass this bill as soon as possible, as we are running out of time — again — to pass reform that protects Alabama’s borrowers from predatory lenders. This bill is simple and overwhelmingly supported by the public. We deserve a vote, and Alabama’s borrowers deserve relief. I will be looking for your leadership on this. Thank you.

Sincerely,

_______________”

Make your voice heard! It can make the difference. 

Challenging Alabama’s Racial Wealth Divide

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by Frank Knaack, Executive Director

The staggering racial disparities in Alabama’s criminal justice system mean people of color are more likely to incur criminal justice debt and face counterproductive hurdles to reentry. People of color are also far more likely to encounter predatory lenders, whose loan products can legally reach 456% APR. Together, these systems help drive Alabama’s racial wealth divide.

With support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Alabama Appleseed has launched a collaborative project with Greater Birmingham Ministries, Legal Services Alabama, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities (TASC) to:

  • Document how court-imposed debt and collateral consequences push individuals to seek high interest loans from payday and title loan lenders.
  • Reduce the burden of these debts by educating Alabamians about alternative loan products that would minimize debt burdens.
  • Develop and execute a long-range plan to remedy these three drivers of Alabama’s racial wealth divide.

How will we do this?

Focusing on people of color in Birmingham, Dothan, Huntsville, Mobile, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Lowndes County, Bessemer, and Tarrant, we will:

  • Survey Alabamians impacted by court-imposed debt and/or collateral consequences to understand their role in pushing people to predatory lenders.
  • Seek insight from individuals who know this system, including social workers, law enforcement, indigent defense and civil legal aid attorneys, bank and credit union workers, predatory lenders, academics, social service providers, state and local government workers, and faith and community leaders.
  • Partner with credit unions and other non-predatory loan providers to host public educational forums about reasonable alternative loan products.
  • Develop a broad, ideologically diverse coalition of advocates to address these drivers of Alabama’s racial wealth divide.

Here’s what we know so far:

Court fees are no longer just about funding the operations of the judiciary – they have become funding stream for basic government services. Of the over $165 million in fees collected by Alabama’s courts in 2011, more than 40 percent went to supplement government budgets outside of the judiciary, including county general funds, employee pay raises, and museums. And, fees collected by Alabama’s criminal courts made up over 66% of the total collected. These fees further ensnare low-income people of color in a hard-to-escape cycles of debt.

Alabama continues to erect counterproductive barriers in front of former offenders returning to their communities, such as arbitrary limitations on employment and housing – two key factors to reducing recidivism. According to The Council of State Governments, Alabama maintains 842 collateral consequences to a criminal conviction.

In addition to those statutorily created hurdles, because of the criminal history checkbox on many employers’ initial employment applications, individuals with criminal records often have their job application tossed out before they ever have an opportunity to present their qualifications or rehabilitation. 

Alabama has more predatory lenders than McDonalds restaurants. In 2015, 246,824 unique Alabama borrowers took out more than two million payday loans. The average predatory loan rate is 300% APR and can legally reach 456% APR. Despite being sold to lawmakers as a way for individuals to obtain emergency credit, the average borrower took out eight loans in 2015. In reality, these predatory loan products are used to pay for basic needs and, as a 2014 survey conducted by TASC found, to cover court costs, fines, and fees.  

By reducing criminal fees, removing unnecessary hurdles to reentry, and reining in predatory lenders, this project will help remove three drivers of household debt in Alabama’s communities of color.

It’s Time for Civil Asset Forfeiture to Go

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by Frank Knaack, Executive Director

Under both Alabama and federal law, the government can take and keep your cash, your car, or your house – even if you are never charged with a crime. This program, known as civil asset forfeiture, turns the fundamental American principle of innocent until proven guilty on its head and has no place in Alabama.

Thanks to legislation introduced by Senator Orr (SB 213) and Representative Mooney (HB 287), this abusive practice may soon end here in Alabama.

Originally sold to the public as a tool for taking the ill-gotten gains of drug kingpins, civil asset forfeiture has strayed far from its alleged purpose. In practice, drug kingpins are rarely the target: as our report with the Southern Poverty Law Center found, in half of the cases the amount of cash forfeited was $1,372 or less. The average amount of $1,372 is often less than the typical cost of hiring an attorney to challenge the seizure in court.

That’s not the most troubling finding. In 25% of the civil forfeiture cases we reviewed, there was not a corresponding criminal charge. Think about that – one in every four civil asset forfeiture cases involved the government taking and keeping a person’s property who was never even charged with a crime. In fact, in  2015 alone, local and state government entities kept at least $670,000 from property owners who were never changed with a crime.

It took some digging to learn all of this. Under current law, the government is not required to report what they have taken to a centralized database, so in order to gather data for our report, we had to write a computer program, purchase thousands of dollars worth of court records, and spend hundreds of hours reviewing them one by one. What they did with that money remains a mystery, because of the 138 agencies that were sent open records requests, only one responded with information about expenditures from its forfeiture account. Most agencies didn’t respond at all.

How did we get into this mess? It’s all about incentives.

Under Alabama law, law enforcement keeps up to 100% of the proceeds from forfeited property.

Under the federal program, Alabama law enforcement can keep up to 80% of the proceeds. Between 2000 and 2013, Alabama law enforcement agencies kept over $75 million in property, and, as is the case with the Alabama programs, none of that required a warrant or indictment, much less a criminal conviction.

Between state and federal programs, Alabama law enforcement raked in over $5 million in 2015 alone.  

Law enforcement should not be put in a position where they appear to value funding their budget over the protection of individual rights.

Thanks to Senator Orr and Representative Mooney, we have a very simple solution. Their legislation would:

  • Require that the forfeiture process occur within the criminal case. This legislation would ensure the government proves that the individual whose property was taken was actually convicted of a crime, and that the property seized was the product of, or that it facilitated, that crime. This places the burden back where it belongs – on the state
  • Protect innocent property owners. This legislation would create a process in which property owners can promptly challenge a seizure and/or assert that they did not know or consent to the use of their property in an alleged crime.
  • Bring transparency to the forfeiture process. This legislation would require annual, centralized reporting of all seizures and forfeitures and what law enforcement agencies spend forfeiture proceeds on.
  • Restricts the ability to abuse the federal forfeiture programs. This legislation would prohibit Alabama law enforcement from receiving proceeds from federal forfeiture actions.

This legislation is a win-win. Criminal forfeiture protects innocent Alabama property owners and leaves in place the tools law enforcement needs to hold those who commit crimes accountable.

Ban the Box Clears First Legislative Hurdle

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by Frank Knaack, Executive Director

Earlier today the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee voted to enhance public safety, strengthen our economy, and give people a second chance to make an honest living.

SB 198 (Sen. Singleton), and its House counterpart, HB 257 (Rep. Givan), would prohibit a state or local government employer from asking an applicant about their criminal history until a conditional offer of employment is made. A safeguard in the bill would enable the government employer to withdraw the job offer if the applicant’s criminal conviction is directly related to the job. Further, the bill establishes clear criteria for state agencies to consider during the screening process, which would better protect the agencies from claims of discrimination under Title VII.

Why should Alabama government employers ban the box? Because it improves the public sector’s ability to recruit the best and brightest, strengthens Alabama’s economy, helps make our communities safer, better ensures a second chance for Alabamians who have already paid their debt to society, reduces the criminal justice system’s disproportionate impact on people of color, protects Alabama from having to hire an individual whose criminal conviction is directly related to the job, and helps protect state employers from claims of discrimination.

Many of America’s largest companies, including Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Starbucks, Koch Industries, and Facebook, recognize that banning the box is good for business. As Koch Industries General Counsel Mark Holden wrote last year, “For employers seeking the best talent, it makes sense for a company to consider all factors, including any prior criminal record, in the context of an applicant’s other life experiences. We are in a global competition for the best talent period; not the best talent with or without a record.” Our state and local government employers should view their hiring practices in the same light.

As the National Employment Law Project notes, when an individual with a criminal record has a job, they will contribute more to the tax base, purchase more goods, and is less likely to commit a new crime, thus reducing the amount of money that state and local governments must spend on their criminal justice systems. It is estimated that our nation’s economy loses between $78 and $87 billion each year because of lost output caused by criminal record-related barriers. To strengthen our economy, Alabama lawmakers should support this bill.

In addition to being a sensible business practice, banning the box will also make our communities safer. Alabama has approximately 21,000 people in its prisons, and another 11,000 in its jails. The vast majority of those individuals will be released and return to their communities. To reduce the recidivism rate, the Department of Justice has identified three key elements to successful re-entry into our communities. One of these key elements is helping these individuals find and keep a job. This legislation is a first step toward realizing a key element to reducing recidivism and making our communities safer.

It will also make our communities more fair. Under current law, an otherwise fully qualified applicant can be denied employment long after that applicant has completed their sentence. This practice places counterproductive hurdles in front of individuals seeking to rebuild their lives and provide for their families. Denying a person’s application without considering their qualifications or rehabilitation prevents people who have completed their sentences from getting a fair chance at a fresh start.

Because African Americans are disproportionately caught up in our criminal justice system, they are disproportionately affected when seeking employment. For example, while African Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly equal rates, in 2016 African Americans were over 4.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama. Those individuals will be disproportionately impacted when filling out a job application that includes a criminal history box. This bill offers an opportunity to begin to address the long-term consequences of a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects African Americans.

To protect government employers (and taxpayers), under this legislation a government employer would be permitted to withdraw the offer of employment after learning of the prospective employee’s criminal conviction background if the prospective employee has a conviction that “is directly related to the position of employment sought.” For example, this provision protects a state employer from being forced to hire a convicted embezzler to keep its books.

Finally, by balancing public safety concerns with a sensible approach to hiring, this legislation may help to insulate government employers from claims of discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a guidance document for entities covered by Title VII, including state and local governments, to help eliminate unlawful discrimination in the employment hiring process. As outlined in the guidance document, an employer must show that the selection criteria use or selection procedures are “job related and consistent with business necessity.” Specifically related to an applicant’s criminal record, the guidance says that the individualized screening process should consider “at least the nature of the crime, the time elapsed, and the nature of the job” or otherwise comply with the EEOC Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. This legislation establishes clear criteria for government employers to consider during the screening process when evaluating a person’s prior criminal record, which will better protect government employers from claims of discrimination under Title VII.

SB 198 now heads to the Senate floor.

This legislation is a win-win. It makes us safer, strengthens our economy, better ensures that Alabamians are judged on their merit, not their mistakes, and protects government employers.

Abused: How An Alabama County’s Over-The-Top Approach To Law Enforcement Nearly Ruined One Man’s Life

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by Leah Nelson, Alabama Appleseed Researcher

It was a “harebrained theory” from the start. That’s what a former Houston County assistant district attorney with knowledge of the case against James Vibbert says, anyway.

“[B]ut we didn’t dismiss cases in the DA’s office when Doug Valeska was there. You weren’t allowed to, unless he wanted to dismiss the case,” the former insider said. “‘Try it and lose,’ was pretty much what we were told.”

So that’s what they did. And Vibbert, a small business owner who faced criminal charges and the attempted civil forfeiture of more than $25,000 that he needed to keep his business running, paid the price.

James “Jamey” Vibbert is the unlikely protagonist of an object lesson about the way civil asset forfeiture can be abused by ambitious law enforcement agents and unscrupulous prosecutors. Past president of the Dothan/Houston County Rotary Club, former member of the board of directors and three-time “Ambassador of the Year” for the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce, a man whose Facebook “likes” include “Conservatives Against a Liberal Agenda,” he personifies what many in Alabama’s fiercely conservative Wiregrass region might consider an ideal. He’s a small business owner and entrepreneur who got his start in healthcare systems and payroll solutions before turning to the sale of high-end imported cars; a Huntsville, Ala. native and Crimson Tide fan with two adult children and a young daughter he dotes on.

Sitting in the back office of Bavarian Imports, the dealership he opened after fallout from his disastrous encounter with Houston County’s civil asset forfeiture machine forced him to close his previous shop, Vibbert struggles to find words to describe his experience.  

“It just tarnished. It just knocked it off,” he says. “If it had even been a little cloudy, something that I may have done, that I crossed the line a little bit, maybe I deserved it. No. I didn’t cross the line a single bit. I didn’t do the first thing that was wrong, not even close. That’s what’s so hard about this, it was nothing.”

But it was also everything.

It all started in 2015 when a young man with cash to spare started buying cars from Vibbert’s dealership, CSI Auto Sales. The buyer didn’t have a license, but car dealers often sell cars to individuals who cannot legally drive them – for instance, disabled persons who buy cars that will be driven by others, or elderly individuals who have let their licenses lapse and are buying cars for children or grandchildren.

The first time he bought a car from Vibbert, the buyer said he wanted the title in the name of a person he said was his girlfriend’s mother. Vibbert gave him the paperwork. He also advised the buyer to find a trustworthy lienholder to maintain financial control of any vehicle he bought but didn’t control the title to – that way, if he and his girlfriend got in a fight, the lienholder could stop her from making off with the car. The buyer thanked Vibbert, and did just that.

Not long after that, the buyer was arrested for an alleged drug crime. Alleging they had been purchased with drug money, Lt. Demetrius Bogan of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency apparently looked into having the cars forfeited and learned that the titles were not in the buyer’s name and the cars had third-party lienholders.

In 2004, Houston County District Attorney Doug Valeska sent a memo to all law enforcement personnel under his jurisdiction, telling them that his office expected 20 percent of the proceeds of any item seized via civil asset forfeiture, a legal process by which property believed to be connected to a crime can be “prosecuted” and become the property of the state. The memo, which Alabama Appleseed obtained on Jan. 11 through an open records request asking for all documentation about the Houston and Henry County District Attorney’s civil asset forfeiture policy, states that law enforcement agencies are responsible for paying off any liens on forfeited vehicles, and warning them to look into liens before seeking forfeiture.

When Bogan checked the title on the two vehicles he seized from Vibbert’s buyer, he discovered that it would cost his employer as much as the cars were worth – about $25,000 – to have them forfeited. Rather than let things go, he began to investigate  Vibbert. The prosecutor struggled to charge him: as he  told the Dothan Eagle, he “kind of had to do some serious research in the statutes to figure out exactly how it violated the law. … It’s the first time that I know of we’ve ever charged anybody under these provisions.”

The prosecutor likened Vibbert’s alleged crime to money laundering. “The vehicles were being bought with drug money, and [Vibbert] knew they were being bought with drug money,” he told the Eagle. “He’s falsifying titles to protect a drug dealer’s vehicles from government seizure.”

But Vibbert didn’t know. In his years as a car salesman, he’s had customers pay him in cash and title the car to third parties for any number of legitimate reasons – as an example, he cites a Mobile-based hairdresser who used the cash he received in tips to buy a flashy car for his mother. He also makes a practice of advising young people buying cars for their significant others to add lienholders, to protect the buyer from losing their property due to a bad breakup. All kinds of people buy high-end used automobiles, and Vibbert has learned not to judge or make assumptions without good cause. He just warns his buyers to be careful.

Unfortunately, the system that prosecuted him hadn’t learned that lesson – least of all former Houston County District Attorney Doug Valeska, who earned a bar complaint from a former Alabama Supreme Court justice and a national reputation for abusing his power before retiring in 2016.

According to a former prosecutor who worked in his office, Valeska refused to allow dismissal of Vibbert’s case even when it became clear that the charges were baseless, and the forfeiture proceedings unwinnable.

Vibbert’s first clue that something was amiss came when he noticed that about $25,000 was missing from his bank account. He called his bank, which said it would look into what had happened and get back to him. Two days later, Bogan showed up at his dealership and demanded to talk with him.

Vibbert was at a car show in Tallahassee when his wife Kayla called and put Bogan on the phone. Vibbert recalls the conversation vividly.

“He said ‘I’ve got some advice for you,’ he says. ‘You better leave right there, and you better come back to Alabama, and you better hope that you don’t get pulled over by the police there, ‘cause I’m gonna let you set in jail for 10 days till I come and get you.’ And he says, ‘Oh by the way,’ he says, ‘I’m the one that took that money out of your account.”  

Bogan had gained control of the money under Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow individual police officers to seize cash and other items that they believe are connected to criminal activity.

Most commonly, cash is seized when it’s found in a vehicle or home together with drugs or other alleged evidence of criminal activity. Forfeiture is then sought in civil court, where Alabama law requires prosecutors to prove to a judge’s “reasonable satisfaction” – a nebulous standard that is approximately equivalent to “more likely than not” – that it was the fruits of, or connected to, a crime.

Unusually, Vibbert’s was taken from his bank account, because Bogan and the District Attorney’s office believed it might be connected to drug dealing in some fashion.

Ultimately, a judge disagreed – but not before Vibbert lost his business, and, in many ways, his sense of himself as a pillar of his small, conservative, close-knit Wiregrass community.

There was a flaw in the first indictment against Vibbert, so the judge threw it out the day the trial was set to begin. The District Attorney’s office charged Vibbert again, arrested him again, and insisted on proceeding to trial.

In the meantime, Vibbert hired attorneys and set about attempting to get his money back. It couldn’t happen fast enough. He had intended to use the $25,000 the state seized to purchase new inventory, and now that couldn’t happen. Lenders suspended lines of credit. People stopped buying from him; some even backed out of partially completed transactions after the Dothan Eagle featured a story describing the charges against him. Vibbert’s payroll solutions and workers compensation company, which predated his car dealership, lost about 50 percent of its contracts because no one wanted to trust their finances to an alleged money launderer. Overall, he estimates the ordeal set him back about $300,000 in lost business and expenses.

The criminal trial was over almost before it started. Vibbert’s lawyers took the unusual step of requesting a bench trial, meaning the judge decided the case instead of a jury. The prosecutor’s case fell apart: at one point, the judge interrupted to observe that he himself had recently purchased a car, titled it to his son, and had the title sent to his own home address rather than his son’s – facts similar to those on which the charges against Vibbert were based. “Is that falsifying a title?” the judge asked the prosecutor.

“Possibly,” came the reply. “I would need a little more information.”

In the end, the judge ruled in Vibbert’s favor. In addition to finding him not guilty of all the charges against him, the judge made a clear statement about what he thought of the forfeiture proceedings.

“The Court is not willing to extend forfeiture laws to businesses who are not involved in the drug trade. Otherwise, you are going to draw in car dealers, rental car companies, etc. There would have to be more, a pattern of [sic] practice for the car dealer bending the law to assist drug dealers. This is but one example. But one example. And I am not sure that Mr. Vibbert fits that,” he said.

He warned Vibbert not to sell that particular buyer any more cars, and sent him home.

Off the record, the prosecutor apologized to Vibbert and expressed relief that the proceeding was over. That was January 2016.

Vibbert started to put his life back together. Based on the judge’s words, he was sure his money would be returned to him any day, but months passed, and he received no check. On March 25, 2016, his lawyer sent a letter to Valeska. He observed that other individuals associated with the case – including the buyer, who in addition to allegedly participating in a title fraud scheme was also allegedly in possession of a large quantity of methamphetamine when Bogan stopped him – were not charged with crimes, while “the State and Agent Bogan chose to pursue the rare and speculative charges against Vibbert.” He noted that Vibbert’s bond – a total of $50,000 over the course of two arrests – was shockingly high given the charges and the fact that Vibbert had no prior criminal history.

“It is my opinion that the motivation for pursuing the charges and the civil forfeiture against Vibbert was unfortunately a desire to take his money,” he wrote. “I believe it is now clear that the State has a duty to cease this proceeding.”

Valeska disagreed, and took several more months and a judge’s order to force the state to return Vibbert’s money. He lost about a third of it to attorney fees, and used the rest to reinvest in his foundering businesses.

Things are getting better, but they’re still bad. “It’s very difficult for me today to call on companies in this area and get them to do business with me,” Vibbert says. “My competitors, the first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Let me pull up this thing on the internet here. He launders money.’”

“The internet,” he says, “will never go away.”

Though he’s back on his feet, Vibbert’s life was permanently changed by the experience. An extroverted, highly social man his whole life, he’s withdrawn to a back office to avoid problems with customers who still associate his face with alleged criminal activity. He and his family rarely attend church anymore, and he’s withdrawn from many neighborhood and social activities. He would like to have the record of his arrest expunged, but he dreads going to the local jail to get fingerprinted (a required part of the expungement process), fearful that someone will see him there and assume he’s been arrested again.

“It’s still a nightmare. It hasn’t ended. You would think that it would end, but the problem you have is, you’ve got people who just don’t know the truth, and they assume, ‘ok, it’s this.’ And I worked so hard to build what I had,” Vibbert says. “And the thing is, how they can do that, and get away with it? And they drug me through it. When they finally found out the truth, they didn’t stop. They didn’t stop! It was just like, ‘We don’t care.’”

 

Ensuring Access to Justice for Low-Income Tenants

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For many low-income tenants who live in substandard living conditions or face eviction, access to justice is often elusive.

This often occurs because landlords and tenants are not entering the courtroom on a level playing field. Before their case is even considered, the deck is stacked against low-income tenants.

In fact, while 90 percent of landlords throughout the country are represented by attorneys, an overwhelming 90 percent of tenants go through their case without any legal representation.

In order to ensure greater access to justice for low-income tenants in our state, Alabama Appleseed, along with Legal Services Alabama, recently filed an amici curiae brief in support of tenants’ rights in a case before the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals. The case is Morrow v. Pake. The University of Alabama School of Law’s Civil Law Clinic represented the tenant pro bono in the trial court, and Paula W. Hinton and William M. Logan from Winston & Strawn LLP are assisting pro bono with the appeal.

The facts of the case are sadly all-too-familiar for low-income families in Alabama.

In Tuscaloosa, a mother and her children moved into a single-family home. Under the lease, the landlord tried to relieve himself of responsibility for basic needs in the home such as ensuring working electrical and plumbing systems. Soon after moving in, the living conditions became dangerous, including defective smoke detectors and faulty and failing electrical wiring. The landlord refused to address these issues. Desperate to keep her family safe, the tenant attempted to make some improvements on her own. After more attempts to get the landlord to make the necessary repairs, the landlord moved to evict the tenant. Instead of fighting the landlord in court, the tenant moved her family into a new home.

Once the tenant settled into her new residence, she filed a complaint seeking to hold the landlord accountable for his violations of the Alabama Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA) (which includes a right to decent housing); his breaches of the rental agreement; and his unjust enrichment from the tenant’s improvements to the property.

The lower court ruled in favor of the landlord, who argued that the tenant was legally obligated to raise her claims during the landlord’s eviction proceeding, and therefore was barred from later raising these claims.

Yet the URLTA clearly does not require a tenant to bring her claims during the eviction proceeding. In fact, the law says the tenant “may” bring the claims during the eviction process – which means that the tenant then may also raise them at a later date.

Moreover, the purpose of the Act is to streamline the eviction process and to keep the focus on resolving the possession issue – and not necessarily other claims either party may have against one another. This is evident by the requirement that the tenant respond to the eviction action within 7 days. It is unfathomable to expect a tenant—who is on the verge of being uprooted from their home—to also obtain counsel and file a detailed counterclaim in such a period of immediate hardship.

In order to ensure equal access to justice and basic fairness for all tenants—regardless of their financial status—the Court of Appeals must uphold the right of tenants to bring counterclaims against landlords in later proceedings.

In addition, the State must provide more and adequate resources for civil legal aid programs throughout the state—including the Volunteers Lawyers Programs, Legal Services Alabama, and the other clinics and service providers—who provide low-income Alabamians, including tenants, with vital access to legal representation.

Especially as we enter the holiday season, it is essential that we protect the most vulnerable among us and uphold the rights of all Alabamians so they can enjoy equal access to justice.

The Constitutional Right to Counsel: Is it being upheld in Alabama?

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The United States Constitution is clear. In criminal cases, the accused have a right to a lawyer. Our Constitution affords this protection in order to ensure that individuals are not wrongfully or unfairly deprived of their liberty.

Yet there is question as to whether this fundamental 6th Amendment right is being upheld in Alabama.

Throughout the South, states and districts are being sued for their failure to comply with the Constitution.

In Louisiana, indigent defendants have asserted that their constitutional right to counsel is being denied, which has led to a legal battle over the state’s failure to provide adequate funding and resources for the state public defender service.

Similarly, indigent defendants in South Carolina recently filed a class action lawsuit against certain jurisdictions for failure to provide legal representation.

Horrifically, one plaintiff in the South Carolina case, a homeless man, has been arrested or given a citation 270 times for the same offense, yet not once has he had an attorney represent him in court proceedings.

These cases demonstrate why we need to know if, how, and to what extent Alabama is ensuring access to counsel for indigent defendants.

Appleseed previously conducted a study of the indigent defense services in four Alabama judicial circuits from 2001-2002. This report has been widely cited for the insight it provided on the practices of indigent defense counsel and the outcomes of those cases.

But, there have been no such studies conducted since then, and there is no comprehensive report on indigent representation throughout Alabama.

In order to understand how and whether the right to counsel is being protected today, Appleseed will soon begin documenting and assessing the quality of indigent defense services in a wide range of counties.

Appleseed’s staff has been traveling to all corners of the state to engage with those in the community who are charged with the duty of ensuring that indigent defendants receive legal representation. We have been meeting with these stakeholders, including public defenders, criminal defense attorneys, judges, and other key Alabamians to hear their views on how the system is currently functioning and what aspects of indigent defense they believe we most need to research.

Alabamians care deeply about protecting the Constitution. This is why Appleseed will conduct this study, and then use the findings to collaborate with partners to ensure that all indigent defendants in the state have access to adequately resourced, quality legal representation.

Alabama Appleseed Urges Governor Ivey to Rethink Alabama’s Drug Policy

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Montgomery, AL – The following statement is by Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed, regarding Governor Ivey’s decision to award $1.3 million to establish the Alabama Drug Enforcement Task Force:

“After more than 45 years of the War on Drugs, one thing is clear – we cannot prosecute our way out of drug use. Approximately one in every seven people in Alabama’s already overcrowded prisons are there because of a drug offense, yet drugs remain cheap and widely available. Doubling down on this failed strategy is an expensive and ineffective approach.

Alabamians would be much better served by redirecting money to treatment programs and other public health based responses that have been shown to reduce drug use and save lives. We urge Governor Ivey to reconsider her decision.”