Civil Rights Groups Sue 49 Alabama Sheriffs for Access to Public Records Showing How Sheriffs Personally Profit from Funds Allocated for Feeding People in Jail

,

On Friday, January 5, 2018, the Southern Center for Human Rights and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice filed Southern Center for Human Rights and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice v. Kenneth Ellis, et al., a lawsuit in state court challenging the refusal of 49 Alabama sheriffs to produce public records showing whether, and if so by how much, they have personally profited from funds allocated for feeding people in their jails.

Many sheriffs in Alabama contend that a state law authorizing them to personally “keep and retain” taxpayer dollars provided for feeding people in their jails permits them to take any amounts they do not spend on food as personal income.  “This archaic system is based on a dubious interpretation of state law that has been rejected by two different Attorneys General of Alabama, who concluded that the law merely allows sheriffs to manage the money and use it for official purposes–not to line their own pockets,” said Aaron Littman, a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights.  “It also raises grave ethical concerns, invites public corruption, and creates a perverse incentive to spend as little as possible on feeding people who are in jail.”

In an effort to learn which sheriffs across the state have taken taxpayers’ money from jail food funds, and by how much they have profited, the plaintiff organizations have sent letters requesting copies of financial records showing how much each has kept for personal use.  Although certain sheriffs have responded in compliance with Alabama’s open records law, 49 sheriffs have refused for nearly half a year to comply with their clear obligations to produce the records, claiming instead that these documents are “personal.”  Some even recently responded to a request by the plaintiff organizations for records regarding any jail food obtained for free or shortly before its expiration date with the same argument.

“The public has a right to know whether sheriffs are meeting the basic human needs of incarcerated people in their care, or are instead filling their personal coffers,” said Frank Knaack, the executive director of Alabama Appleseed.  “The Alabama Public Records Law exists so that we can hold our government accountable.  Unfortunately, a number of sheriffs have decided that our public records law does not apply to them.”

The Southern Center for Human Rights receives reports from people in Alabama jails that they are being provided inadequate or unhealthy meals, or food that is spoiled or contaminated.  In 2009, the former Morgan County sheriff was held in contempt and jailed by a federal judge after he purchased half of an 18-wheeler load of corn dogs for $500 and fed them to inmates at every meal.  During the preceding year, he had skimmed almost $100,000 from his office’s food money account.

It is presently unknown how much money sheriffs across the state have taken because most do not report it as income on state financial disclosure forms.  What is clear is that the sums can be significant.  One sheriff who did make such a report took more than $250,000 in “compensation” from “food provisions” in both 2016 and 2015.  Another sheriff was held in contempt of a federal court in 2017 after removing $160,000 from the jail food account and investing it in a used car dealership.

The lawsuit was filed in Hale County Circuit Court.  The plaintiff organizations, represented by attorneys at the Southern Center for Human Rights and Jake Watson and Rebekah Keith McKinney of Huntsville, seek an order from the court that the records they have requested are public, and that the defendant sheriffs must produce them.  They have requested that their suit be consolidated with a related case filed by Sheriff Kenneth Ellis which is currently pending before the same court and involves the same question of public access to information about how sheriffs profit from jail food funds.

The complaint is available online here.

2018 Alabama Regular Session – Pre-Session Report

, , ,

Alabama Appleseed is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1999 whose mission is to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians. Alabama Appleseed is a member of the national Appleseed Network, which includes 18 Appleseed Centers across the U.S. and in Mexico City.

The 2018 Alabama Regular Session will begin on January 9, 2018. The session is limited to 30 meeting days within a period of 105 calendar days. Because of upcoming elections, we expect the session to conclude early – possibly around March 27, 2018.

Below is a summary of key human rights issues we anticipate will be under active, serious deliberation by the legislature in 2018.

Fair Schools, Safe Communities Campaign Legislation

Our communities are safer and our schools fairer when laws and policies are grounded in evidence. It’s time for Alabama’s laws to reflect this common-sense approach.

To make our communities safer, reduce the burden on taxpayers, and begin to address the staggering racial disparities in Alabama’s criminal justice system, the Alabama legislature should:

End Civil Asset Forfeiture
We expect legislation to be introduced that would end civil asset forfeiture (replacing it with the criminal forfeiture process in all instances), require transparency in the criminal asset forfeiture process, and prohibit Alabama law enforcement from receiving proceeds from the federal civil asset forfeiture programs. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because civil asset forfeiture:

  • Disproportionately harms Alabama’s most vulnerable;
  • ​Incentivizes the pursuit of profit over the fair administration of justice;
  • Turns the presumption of innocence on its head by forcing property owners to defend their property’s “innocence.”

Reclassify Marijuana Possession
We expect legislation to be introduced that would reclassify possession of one ounce or less of marijuana as a fine-only offense. We also expect legislation to be introduced that would create more appropriate weight thresholds for all marijuana offenses. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because Alabama’s current marijuana laws:

  • Turn otherwise law-abiding people into felons for merely possessing small quantities of marijuana;
  • ​Waste taxpayer money and misdirect law enforcement resources;
  • Disproportionately harm African Americans;
  • Needlessly ensnare Alabamians in the criminal justice system.

Ban the Box
We expect legislation to be introduced that would prohibit a state or local government employer from asking an applicant about their criminal history until a conditional offer of employment is made. Under this law, the government employer would be permitted to withdraw the job offer if the applicant’s criminal conviction was directly related to the job. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because it would:

  • Help make our communities safer;
  • Better ensure a second chance for Alabamians who have already paid their debt to society;
  • Protect Alabama from having to hire individuals whose criminal convictions are directly related to the job;
  • Help protect state employers from claims of discrimination.

Stop Sending Children into the Adult Justice System
We expect legislation to be introduced that would reduce the number of children sent into the adult justice system. Alabama Appleseed believes that no child should be referred to the adult justice system because children:

  • Are different than adults – they cannot vote, buy alcohol or tobacco, or gamble;
  • Have an increased aptitude for rehabilitation;
  • Are 36 times more likely to commit suicide when incarcerated in adult facilities when compared with children placed in juvenile facilities;
  • Are 34% more likely to be arrested again when compared with youth convicted of similar offenses in juvenile court.

Establish Infectious Disease Elimination Pilot Programs
Legislation has been pre-filed that would allow for syringe services programs in counties where there is a high risk of an outbreak of blood-borne diseases or where an outbreak or epidemic already exists. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because it:

  • Creates a data-driven approach to reducing the harms associated with drug use;
  • Increases public safety by helping to reduce the number of contaminated needles on streets, on playgrounds, and in trash receptacles, thereby protecting children, law enforcement personnel, and other emergency responders, sanitation workers, and others from needle sticks;
  • Decreases rates of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C transmission by reducing syringe sharing among injection drug users.​

Ensure a Holistic Approach to Criminal Justice Reform
Legislation may be introduced that would authorize the construction of new prisons. Alabama Appleseed opposes this approach because it does not address the underlying problems that fuel Alabama’s high incarceration rate. Any solution to Alabama’s prison overcrowding must focus on the root issues:

  • Ending the war on drugs;
  • Prioritizing substance and mental health treatment programs;
  • Removing hurdles to reentry;
  • Expanding alternatives to incarceration.

Access to Justice Campaign Legislation

Equal justice under law requires a justice system that provides a level playing field for all Alabamians, regardless of one’s ability to pay. In order to achieve this, the state must ensure access to civil legal services, and protect the the fundamental right to counsel in criminal court.

To ensure more equal access to the courts, the Alabama legislature should:

Remove hurdle to low-income Alabamians seeking access to the courts 
Legislation has been pre-filed that would further provide for waiving the filing fee in a civil case due to the individual’s financial hardship. The legislation would specify that the pleading accompanying the statement of substantial hardship shall be considered filed on the date the statement of substantial hardship is filed with the court. The legislation would also specify that if the court finds that no hardship exists, the party shall have 30 days to submit payment. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because it:

  • Protects the rights of Alabamians;
  • Ensures greater access to the courts;
  • Create more clarity and uniformity throughout the civil justice system.

Additional Priority Legislation 

Reform Predatory Lending
We expect legislation to be introduced that would extend the loan period to 30 days for payday loans. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because:

  • Low-income borrowers face interest rates as high as 456% APR;
  • 30 percent of payday loan borrowers took out 12 payday loans or more according to the most recent annual data;
  • Payday borrowers paid payday lenders more than $107 million in fees in the most recent year alone.

Challenge Expansion of Alabama’s Broken Death Penalty System
We expect legislation to be introduced that would expand the list of death penalty-eligible crimes. Alabama Appleseed opposes any such legislation until Alabama’s capital punishment regime is reformed. We should all agree that if we have a death penalty then the process should be fair and accurate. Yet, over 10 years ago the American Bar Association published a report that found problems throughout Alabama’s death penalty process – from interactions with law enforcement at the beginning to the post-conviction process at the end. In fact, the concerns were so serious that the ABA report recommended a temporary moratorium on executions until the recommendations were implemented. The vast majority of those recommendations have still not been implemented. Alabama legislators should be focused on ensuring Alabama has a fair and accurate death penalty process, not expanding the class of people who can be executed under this flawed system.

Ensuring Access to Justice for Low-Income Tenants

, ,

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?

, ,

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.

Diverse Groups Hold Forum on Civil Asset Forfeiture

,

In advance of the 2018 Alabama legislative session, panelists detail solutions to law enforcement’s unfair seizure of property.

Birmingham, AL – A diverse coalition of groups that oppose the law enforcement practice of seizing property from citizens without first obtaining a criminal conviction held an educational forum today, arguing that the Alabama State Legislature should outlaw the practice.

The organizations are making their case ahead of the 2018 Alabama legislative session, hoping to change current state law that allows the practice – also known as civil asset forfeiture. Under current law, Alabama’s law enforcement agencies are allowed to confiscate cash, vehicles and other private property on the mere suspicion that it was either involved in a crime or derived from criminal activity.

“In Alabama, law enforcement agencies can take your property even if you are never charged with a crime,” said panelist Frank Knaack, executive director of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. “You then have the burden to prove in court that your property is legally owned – that’s right, your property is guilty until proven innocent. To make matters worse, law enforcement are not required to report what they seize, how much they seize, and how they spend the proceeds. It’s a system that incentivizes the pursuit of profit over the fair administration of justice.”

Co-hosted by 11 diverse organizations and membership groups, panelists at the forum discussed the roots of civil asset forfeiture in the failed drug war, the problems of transparency, and the potential for abuse of the practice by law enforcement. Participants also discussed the prospect of necessary reforms in the Alabama legislative session of 2018.

The organizations want the Alabama legislature to strengthen the protection of individual property rights, eliminate the profit motive in the practice, and ensure transparency in reporting.

“Based on our analysis of the financial incentive for law enforcement to seize property, the government’s standard of proof to forfeit, and who bears the burden in innocent owner claims, Alabama earned a D-minus grade,” said panelist Lee McGrath, senior legislative counsel for the Institute of Justice. “No teacher or parent would be happy with that grade, and neither should Alabamians when their property and due process rights are at stake.”

Panelist Jordan Richardson, a senior policy analyst for the Charles Koch Institute, said policing should be about public safety, not profit. “States around the country, including Georgia, Florida and Mississippi, are moving in the right direction,” Richardson said. “Alabama should not risk getting left behind.”

Other states and the U.S. House of Representatives have recognized that civil asset forfeiture often does not align with the presumption of innocence and the respect for property rights that are bedrock principles of the United States.

“Civil asset forfeiture is unfair, undemocratic and un-American,” said Shay Farley, the Alabama Policy Counsel for the SPLC and moderator of the panel. “These laws turn the Constitutional provision that a person is innocent until proven guilty on its head. Luckily for Alabamians, the solutions are clear. The Alabama legislature can fix the problems in current practices by requiring criminal convictions before forfeiture of associated property, by placing proceeds from forfeiture into the state’s general fund instead of local law enforcement agency budgets, and by requiring public reporting of seizures and how the proceeds are spent.”

The forum, held at the Burr & Forman law firm, also referenced the stories of people who have been affected by civil asset forfeiture, including the family of Wayne Bonam. A few months after a drug task force in Covington County, Alabama, targeted Bonam in a raid, he passed away. Andalusia District Attorney Walt Merrell pressed on with civil asset forfeiture anyway, winning the case against Bonam’s home and his cash, and compounding the tragedy for his grieving family. The money from the seizure flowed into the task force, which was in the process of losing a federal grant.

In addition to Alabama Appleseed, the SPLC, the Charles Koch Institute, and the Institute of Justice, other co-sponsors of the forum included the Alabama Libertarian Party, the Alabama Policy Institute, the ACLU of Alabama, the American Constitutional Society – Alabama Chapter, the Drug Policy Alliance, Faith in Action Alabama, and the Federalist Society – Birmingham Lawyers Chapter.

Rein in Policing for Profit

,

Under both Alabama and federal law, if an individual law enforcement officer believes that your property (including cash) is tied to certain criminal activities, they can seize it, even if you are never convicted of – or even charged with – a crime. You then have the burden to prove in court that your property was legally obtained. That’s right – your property is guilty until proven innocent.

Under Alabama Law, law enforcement agencies can keep 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property. Under the federal program, Alabama law enforcement keeps 80 percent of the forfeited property, with the remaining 20 percent going to the federal government.

Civil asset forfeiture:

Turns the presumption of innocence on its head. A cornerstone of the American justice system is the principle that one is innocent until proven guilty. Yet under Alabama law, your property is guilty until you prove its innocence. To forfeit property in Alabama, the state need only show to the court’s “reasonable satisfaction” (preponderance standard) that the property in question is related to certain criminal activities. And, under most circumstances, the property owner bears the burden of proving that the property was obtained lawfully. It’s time for Alabama lawmakers to place the burden where it belongs – on the state.

Disproportionately harms Alabama’s most vulnerable. Victims of forfeiture abuse have no right to an attorney. Thus, those who seek to have their property returned by the state not only bear the burden of proving their property was lawfully obtained, but also the financial burden of hiring an attorney. This means that those who cannot afford an attorney must defend themselves. While no Alabamian should bear the cost of having their lawfully obtained property returned, Alabama’s most vulnerable are often left without any true recourse at all.

Incentivizes the pursuit of profit over the fair administration of justice.Under Alabama law, law enforcement keeps 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property. Thus, law enforcement agencies have an incentive to seize as much property as possible, knowing that for anything but real property the owner will then have the burden of proving the property was lawfully obtained. Because Alabama’s law enforcement agencies are not required to report the property they seize, we do not know the scope of the problem. But, if Alabama law enforcement agencies’ use of the federal asset forfeiture program is any measure, the problem is huge. Between 2000 and 2013 Alabama law enforcement agencies seized over $75 million dollars in property, and none of that required a warrant or indictment, much less a criminal conviction. Law enforcement should not be put in a position where they appear to value funding their budget over the protection of individual rights.

 The Alabama legislature must pass five basic reforms:

  1. Require law enforcement to secure a criminal conviction before allowing a forfeiture to proceed. Requiring the government to first prove that the individual whose property was taken actually committed a crime and then prove that the property seized was the product of that crime will place the burden back where it belongs – on the government. This straightforward step would protect Alabamian’s property rights while better ensuring that law enforcement are focused on public safety, not generating revenue.
  2. Require an accounting of the property seized under Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture program. Alabama’s program currently resembles a black hole because there’s no requirement that law enforcement report what they’ve taken from the public. It’s time for Alabama to being sunlight to its civil asset forfeiture program.
  3. Require the state to distribute forfeiture proceeds to its general fund budget instead of allowing law enforcement agencies to keep it. This reform would help remove the profit motive from this practice. Such reforms should be welcomed and supported by anybody who believes that in the eyes of the law, we are all innocent until proven guilty.
  4. Ensure individuals facing a civil asset forfeiture proceeding have access to quality, adequately funded counsel regardless of their ability to pay. Currently, Alabamians seeking to defend their property in court must hire their own attorney. Those who cannot afford an attorney must either represent themselves in court or give up their property. Access to justice is a cornerstone of our judicial system, and no Alabamian should be forced to defend their property without an attorney.  
  5. Prohibit Alabama law enforcement from using the federal civil asset forfeiture program unless it includes the requirements outlined above. The federal forfeiture plan should not be a loophole for law enforcement to bypass state policies designed to prevent abuse of this practice. Alabama should bar its law enforcement from participating in the federal program until these basic protections are in place.

Prison Construction is the Wrong Approach for Alabama, Says Alabama Appleseed

,

Montgomery, AL – Today the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) announced a plan to hire a project management team to construct new prison facilities and renovate existing facilities. This announcement follows unsuccessful attempts in 2016 and 2017 to pass prison construction legislation through the Alabama Legislature.

“Alabama has a choice – it can embrace evidence-based reforms that have been proven to increase public safety and reduce the burden on taxpayers in other southern states, or double down on expensive and ineffective incarceration,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed.

Overincarceration is not unique to Alabama. In 2007, Texas projected that the state would need to construct new prisons at a cost of approximately $2 billion. It chose another direction: Instead of building new prisons, Texas focused on front-end reforms, including funding treatment and diversion programs, and back-end reforms, including capping parole caseloads and expanding halfway house space and in-prison treatment programs.  As a result, Texas is slated to close its eighth prison in six years. South Carolina followed a similar approach, resulting in the closure of six prisons since 2010. And, both Texas and South Carolina have seen substantial reductions in their crime rates.

“As our neighbors in Texas and South Carolina have shown us, by creating more appropriate punishments for low-level offenders and reinvesting a fraction of the money that would have been needed to build prisons in community-based rehabilitation programs, we can reduce the burden placed on our taxpayers without jeopardizing public safety,” said Knaack.

While the specific timeline for prison construction is unclear under the ADOC plan, past prison construction proposals allotted five years for completion.

“The options are clear – Alabama can spend the next five years building new prisons and locking in a reliance on incarceration and a massive corrections budget for a generation to come, or we can spend the next five years implementing the reforms executed in Texas and South Carolina, placing Alabama on the path to closing prisons and reducing the burden on our taxpayers,” Knaack said.

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

, ,

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.”

​Alabama’s Death Penalty Process is Broken

, ,

On Thursday, October 19, the state of Alabama executed Torrey Twayne McNabb by lethal injection, using a secret execution protocol that has repeatedly resulted in botched procedures.

The execution did not go well. After reassuring his family that he was not afraid, Mr. McNabb was injected with midazolam, a valium-like sedative, and executioners twice conducted a “consciousness check,” brushing Mr. McNabb’s eyelid, calling his name, and pinching his shoulder. Mr. McNabb responded in a purposeful-looking way to both checks, moving his hand, raising his arm, and grimacing, but the execution proceeded anyway.

Afterwards, Commissioner Jefferson S. Dunn told reporters executioners had followed the protocol “as it is written” – an unverifiable claim, since Alabama has refused to release details of its protocol, despite multiple public records requests and current litigation by a local minister. Dunn said he was “confident” that McNabb was “more than unconscious” when he moved, characterizing his movements as “involuntary” and saying they are common occurrences at executions.

Indeed they are. Ronald Bert Smith, Jr. heaved and coughed for 13 minutes of his December 2016 execution. And purposeful-looking movement was observed during the January 2016 execution of Christopher Brooks, who reportedly opened one eye, and the June 2017 execution of Robert Melson, whose hands and arms reportedly quivered and shook against his restraints.

These facts alone should be enough to persuade Gov. Kay Ivey and legislators that Alabama’s death penalty process is broken. But they are not the only reasons. In 2015, judges ordered the release of three men – Anthony Ray Hinton, Montez Spradley, and William Ziegler – from Alabama’s death row due to evidence of innocence or prosecutorial misconduct, errors, and abuses egregious enough to warrant reversal. Including Hinton, eight Alabama death row prisoners have been exonerated in the modern death penalty era. That many of them spent decades behind bars should give pause to supporters of attempts, including 2017’s so-called “Fair Justice Act,” to shorten the time between sentencing and execution.

As far back as 2006, the American Bar Association’s Alabama Death Penalty Assessment Team, consisting of eight distinguished Alabama attorneys, made a variety of specific recommendations for reform. Recognizing that Alabama’s death penalty process ensured neither accuracy nor fairness, these Alabama experts called for a temporary moratorium on executions while the state worked to address them. So far, only one of these, calling for an end to the practice of allowing elected judges to override a jury’s recommendation of life without parole in favor of a death sentence, has been enacted.

Before Alabama even considers moving forward with a new execution, it must implement the Assessment Team’s recommendations and empanel a new commission to review emerging issues, including the demonstrably problematic execution protocol. In devising a new commission, Alabama lawmakers could look to the example of Oklahoma, which implemented a moratorium and empaneled a commission to review its capital punishment system in 2016, after a disastrously botched execution, and revelations of shocking ineptitude and deception by top Department of Corrections officials brought international condemnation and undermined public confidence. Following a year-long investigation, the commission unanimously recommended an extension on the moratorium “until significant reforms are accomplished.”

Alabama’s system suffers from many of the same flaws as Oklahoma’s, including an execution protocol that has resulted in several botched executions; inadequate safeguards against the execution of the innocent; and an over-burdened and under-resourced defense bar.

While Alabamians may disagree on whether we should have a death penalty, we should all agree that if Alabama has a death penalty then the process should be fair and accurate. Currently it fails this basic test.  It is unconscionable that Alabama continues to execute individuals without addressing the fundamental problems with our death penalty process.

Alabama Appleseed, the Virginia NAACP, and Coalition Partners File Brief in Opposition to Drivers’ Licenses Being Suspended for Unpaid Debts

Montgomery, AL – Alabama Appleseed, the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, and 17 other civil rights and poverty law organizations from across the nation today submitted an amicus brief in a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit challenging Virginia’s practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of those who cannot afford to pay court fees and fines. A lower court dismissed the case for jurisdictional reasons.

As the brief notes, the “mandatory license suspension for nonpayment of court debt is both unconstitutional and fundamentally unfair because it imposes substantially more severe punishment upon those who are unable to pay. Because the poverty rate of black Virginians is disproportionately high, and because blacks face well-documented bias in charging and sentencing, the statutory scheme also has a disparate impact on black Virginians. For those unable to pay court debts, Virginia’s license suspension scheme perpetuates a cycle of poverty and continued entrenchment in the justice system that devastates individual lives while doing nothing to further Virginia’s interest in collecting its court debts.”

​“Virginians are not alone, Alabamians who cannot afford their fines and fees also face the suspension of their driver’s license,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “Access to a diver’s license is not a luxury – it’s often a requirement for getting to work, school, or the doctor’s office. States must stop punishing people for being poor. We urge the 4th Circuit to ensure that this case moves forward.”

A copy of the brief can be found here.