The former high school football star used marijuana to manage pain from a catastrophic accident. Did Alabama law enforcement charge him as a drug kingpin so the state could keep his car, cash, and other valuables?

By Leah Nelson

Leah.Nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

PHENIX CITY, ALA. – Quandarius Holt must have thought that the worst things that could happen as a result of being struck by an 18-wheeler in 2018 were already behind him. The 23-year-old former high school football star had already lost his left leg above the knee and endured multiple surgeries, resulting from a tractor trailer crashing into him as he helped a motorist move her disabled car off the road.

Quan Holt picked up wheelchair basketball after losing his left leg.

 

Remarkably, after less than a year, Holt was moving forward. With money from the significant settlement he received as a result of the accident, he and his wife purchased a house in a nice neighborhood and a new car. He joined a wheelchair basketball league and was being recruited for several college teams. After discovering the opioids and other medications he was sent home from the hospital with did little to lessen the excruciating pain from his injuries, he turned instead to the aid of marijuana.

 

That was a mistake. In Alabama, it is illegal to possess any amount of marijuana for any reason. But Holt, desperate for relief, didn’t ask the right questions or think through the potential risks when he obtained medical marijuana cards from Georgia and California. He learned the hard way when the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) arrested him at his Phenix City, Ala. house on July 16, 2020. By the time he got out of jail, ALEA had taken his car, his cash, his cell phone, and other belongings, using a process known as civil asset forfeiture which allows law enforcement to seize and even keep property they believe is connected to criminal activity. Despite Holt’s own admission that he used marijuana to manage pain, law enforcement charged him like a drug kingpin – a decision his attorney believes was made to strengthen the state’s case for keeping his property, not because of any evidence that Holt is a drug dealer.

In the space of two years, Holt lost his leg, his mobility, and his ability to support his family. Confused by ill-considered guidance from doctors who suggested he try marijuana and so desperate to manage his pain he failed to seriously consider the consequences, he also lost $60,000 worth of property he’d purchased with proceeds from the civil settlement from his catastrophic accident.

Now awaiting trial in the case that could result in a prison sentence, Holt is broke, depressed, frightened, and in pain.

The Cannabis Conundrum

This was not the life Holt envisioned. In high school, he was a nationally ranked football player who left parties if there was any substance abuse, even drinking. “I grew up in the ghetto, in the projects. I knew football was my ticket out,” he told Alabama Appleseed.

He earned a scholarship and played at a private high school in Phenix City, then went to Lindenwood University in Illinois. He took a break after his freshman year and considered joining the Marines. It was during this break, the fall of what would have been his sophomore year in college, that the accident happened.

Quan’s football talents earned him a scholarship to a private high school and to college. Here, he is Number 29.

Just before dawn on Nov. 19, 2018, Holt and his girlfriend happened upon a 61-year-old woman who had gotten a flat tire on a busy road in Columbus, Georgia. He was helping her move the vehicle to safety when he was struck by an 18-wheeler. Army medics who happened upon the scene on their way to Fort Benning saved his life – but they could not save his left leg, which was amputated above the knee. His right femur was broken, his pelvis fractured, his bladder ruptured, his liver lacerated, and his spine injured.

Holt told Appleseed he was placed in a medically induced coma for about a month and prescribed morphine to manage the pain. By the time he went home, his 5’11” frame had plummeted from 225 to 125 pounds.

Records show the hospital sent him home with 11 medications, including Fentanyl, a highly addictive synthetic opioid that the CDC cites as a major driver of overdose deaths. Holt says none of them controlled his pain. Neither did multiple follow-up surgeries. His worst pains were so-called “phantom pains,” his brain confused by signals from the nerves that were damaged when surgeons amputated his leg. He told Appleseed that one of his doctors recommended medical cannabis and referred him to the Georgia Department of Public Health and BePainFreeGlobal, a marijuana retailer based in California.

These were dangerous, ill-informed recommendations. Under Georgia law, a physician may recommend their patient be permitted to register for a Low THC Card. If the recommendation is approved – and it appears Holt’s was – the Georgia Department of Public Health provides a registry card allowing the patient to legally possess up to 20 fluid ounces of “low THC oil.”

Georgia’s law does not allow people to purchase most marijuana products. More importantly for Holt, Georgia’s law only applies in Georgia. A Georgia Low THC Card is meaningless in Alabama, where he lives. Phenix City, Ala., where Holt lives, is tied so closely to the larger Columbus, Ga. just across the state line that it is Alabama’s only municipality to operate in the Eastern Time Zone. Residents move constantly across state lines for work and commerce. Holt’s doctors were in Georgia and covered by Georgia law – but he was not.

The medical marijuana card issued by California physicians via BePainFreeGlobal’s affiliated network is even more troubling. On Oct. 19, 2020, Alabama Appleseed called BePainFreeGlobal and asked about having marijuana shipped to Alabama. The customer service representative confirmed they ship to all 50 states as long as the customer has a California doctor’s recommendation. He referred Appleseed to several California-based telehealth providers, noting that one in particular was cheap, quick, and “they approve everyone.”

Appleseed told him that marijuana, medical or otherwise, is not legal in Alabama. “I definitely understand what you’re saying,” the customer service representative said. But his employers, he said, “feel that they’re under some kind of legal umbrella due to like constitutional law and the Bill of Rights.” The representative then transferred Appleseed to “somebody more on the up end” of the management chain. A voicemail and attempts to follow up via email received no response.

BePainFreeGlobal may or may not be protected by “some kind of legal umbrella” – it seems doubtful – but Holt is out in the storm. Until and unless marijuana laws are made more uniform nationwide, there will always be people ensnared by the jurisdictional traps that mean what is perfectly legal in one state is a felony in another.

After losing his leg, Quan remained committed to supporting his children.

Helping his toddler walk, while learning to walk all over again himself.

Holt does seem to have been a heavy user. He was arrested with about three ounces of marijuana and various products. But there is no evidence that he sold marijuana or intended to; no evidence that he used his vehicle to distribute marijuana; and significant reason to believe that he, like his wife, possessed it solely for personal use. There is no weight threshold distinguishing marijuana possession “for personal use” from “for other than personal use” in Alabama law; that determination is made solely by charging authorities. Yet the difference in terms of outcome is enormous. Possession for personal use is a misdemeanor on the first arrest and a Class D felony all subsequence arrests. Possession for other than personal use is a Class C felony, carrying serious consequences. This was Holt’s first arrest for possession.

 

Out in the storm

The complaint filed in the civil asset forfeiture case says that a neighbor who was in law enforcement alerted ALEA of marijuana in Holt’s house, going so far as to trespass on Holt’s property to photograph his two marijuana plants. Holt was not living there at the time because he and his wife had separated. She remained in the house with their son, while Holt moved to a nearby apartment. Their relationship was strained, and at one point he insisted she move out of the house.

Based on the neighbor’s report, an ALEA agent came to the house, where Holt’s wife was packing up her clothes. Holt’s wife told him that the marijuana plants did not belong to her and that she knew they were illegal. According to the complaint, she asked if she could call and ask Holt to come over. Law enforcement vacated the driveway and concealed themselves, waiting for Holt to arrive.

Holt told Appleseed he came quickly, thinking he and his wife would be continuing their ongoing conversation about custody arrangements for their one-year-old son. Instead, he was greeted by weapons and handcuffs. “My car isn’t completely in my driveway [when] three undercover agents come out of my house with their guns drawn at me, and a state trooper pulled in behind me to block me from leaving,” he said.

The two marijuana plants and paraphernalia were already wrapped and bagged as evidence when he got inside. According to the complaint, police also found 90 grams of marijuana in his car, along with THC gummies, five packs of THC vape cartridges, and a bottle of THC oil in his car. They found four grams of marijuana and a THC vape in his wife’s car.

The Lee County District Attorney Pro Tem told Appleseed that at this stage, charging decisions are based on recommendations from law enforcement. She said she is unable to comment on the case beyond what is in the record, and suggested we call ALEA. ALEA did not respond to Appleseed’s request for its valuation of the marijuana, and said pending litigation meant it could not comment on our request for assistance in understanding the assertion by the law enforcement agency that the marijuana was for other than personal use. Holt’s lawyer says there are documents showing Holt paid less than $400 for the THC products from BePainFreeGlobal, and that the two plants were too immature to have produced any cannabis that could be used or sold, and therefore essentially valueless at the time of his arrest.

Police arrested both Holt and his wife and booked them into jail. Holt was charged with First Degree Possession of Marijuana for Other than Personal Use, a Class C felony; Unlawful Manufacture of a Controlled Substance, which can be a Class A or B felony, and Possession/Receipt of a Controlled Substance, a Class D felony. Bond for the three cases came to $54,500.

Holt’s wife was charged with Second Degree Possession of Marijuana, a misdemeanor, and Possession/Receipt of a Controlled Substance, a Class D felony. Her bond totaled $2,500.

Holt and his wife both bonded out within a few hours. By then, police had taken more than $9,000 in cash that he and his wife had withdrawn from their shared account during an acrimonious low point in their dispute, as well as the 2019 Dodge Charger and everything inside of it – including his iPhone, clothes he had recently purchased for his baby boy (who has since outgrown them), a new lawnmower battery he needed to replace one that had died, and the licensed firearms he kept to protect himself after his injury limited his mobility.

He has not seen any of it since.

Policing for Profit

Holt purchased his car and other items seized not from drug activity, but from proceeds from the settlement he received after being crushed by an 18-wheeler. While he acknowledges being a heavy marijuana user to manage his pain, no one gets rich from buying drugs.

Holt retained a lawyer to challenge the state’s seizure of his belongings. The state argues in its complaint that the car, cash, and firearms were “used, or intended for use,” in unlawful activity. But the ostensible purpose of civil asset forfeiture laws is to separate individuals who might be beyond the reach of the law (for instance, drug kingpins residing outside the U.S.) from their ill-gotten riches.

Quan Holt cares for his young children, despite having his car, cash, and other valuables seized by law enforcement.

And that is where Holt’s case becomes both interesting and terribly dismaying. Holt is decidedly not a drug kingpin. In an interview with Alabama Appleseed, the former high school football star admitted to spending tens of thousands of dollars on the products he needed to manage his pain from the 2018 accident. Much of that money went to BePainFreeGlobal.com, the California-based outfit that ships nationwide, seemingly with impunity, despite state and federal laws explicitly barring it from doing so. In fact, Holt’s attorney, Mike Segrest, told Appleseed he offered to share with ALEA receipts and other evidence of BePainFreeGlobal’s activity, which could potentially help law enforcement investigate the business. Segrest said ALEA responded to his offer by threatening to file federal charges against Holt for using the U.S. Postal Service to receive contraband.

The steep charges against Holt gave Alabama authorities leverage over more than his liberty. They also enabled law enforcement to seize his property under Alabama’s expansive civil asset forfeiture law, which allows the state to take and keep currency, vehicles, houses, land, weapons, and virtually any other item that is they believe is the proceeds of, or was used to facilitate, criminal activity.

Holt has not yet been indicted, so the outcome of the criminal charges against him is still unknown. Regardless, he is already suffering the consequences: he’s broke, he lost his car, and his untreated pain makes every moment agony.

He earns a little money from his job at the front desk of a doctor’s office, but between child support for his two children (a daughter from a prior relationship and a young son from the marriage that just ended), payments to his bail bondsman, and other expenses, it’s not enough. His doctor prescribed pain medication and a muscle relaxant, Holt said. But “my prescription has been sitting at the pharmacy for about a week because I do not have the funds to go and get it.”

But what of the other consequences? Should Holt lose his valuables because he was treating his pain with a type of medication that is legal in states where the overwhelming majority of Americans live?

Alabama says yes. In its complaint, the state says the items it seized: $9,306, the Dodge Challenger, and the firearms, were “used, or intended for use, in a transaction which would be in violation of the Alabama Controlled Substances Act or other laws of the State of Alabama concerning controlled substances and/or that said vehicle and weapon were used, or intended for use, to transport, or in any manner facilitate the transportation, manufacture, sale, receipt, possession, or concealment of a controlled substance or precursor to manufacture in violation of the Alabama Controlled Substances Act amended and/or is a traceable drug asset.”

Boiled down, that avalanche of law enforcement argot means the state is pretty sure all that stuff is somehow linked to a crime. According to Segrest, ALEA asserts that the mere fact that the Challenger had marijuana in it means the state is entitled to keep it.

Pursuant to that assertion, in its complaint, the state “respectfully request[s]” that, if the money is “condemned,” (that is, if a judge decides Holt should never get it back), 70 percent ($6,514.20) be given to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, 20 percent ($1,861.20) to the Lee County District Attorney’s Fund, and 10 percent ($930.60) to the Alabama Department of Forensic Science’s Auburn Lab.

It asks that the “monetary proceeds” of the Dodge Challenger – a sports car that cost Holt more than $40,000 off the lot – be divided the same way, and suggests the firearms be given to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency for “general law enforcement purposes or destruction.”

Questionable Constitutionality

Quan Holt’s situation – police seizing property he acquired as a result of his kindness to a stranger nearly costing him his life – seems uniquely unjust.  But it is just the latest in a long line of examples of law enforcement profiting wildly from civil asset forfeiture where the public safety benefits are tenuous at best.

In 2017, the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center undertook an extensive review of Alabama civil forfeiture cases. We examined 1,110 cases in 14 counties, representing 1,591 civil asset forfeiture cases filed in Alabama in 2015.

In 55 percent of cases we examined where criminal charges were filed, the charges were related to marijuana. In 18 percent of cases where criminal charges were filed, the charge was simple possession of marijuana and/or paraphernalia – crimes that require the person to part with money or valuables in order to commit them.

Segrest, the lawyer who represents Holt in both the criminal and civil proceedings, is mounting a vigorous challenge to both. Among other things, he observes that Holt was not living at the residence when police served his wife with the search warrant – that in fact, he only came there because his wife messaged him and asked him to come and talk after law enforcement had already threatened her with arrest. The search and seizure of the car and its contents, he argues, was illegal.

Segrest makes another argument about the seizure’s constitutionality, one that goes to the heart of an evolving argument about limits of civil asset forfeiture and the use of financial penalties more broadly. Even if the search was legal, he says, the property seized cannot be forfeited because it is disproportionate to the crime committed.

Segrest’s argument is based on new constitutional law stemming from the 2013 case of Tyson Timbs, an Indiana resident who used life insurance money he received after his father died to buy a $42,000 Land Rover. Timbs, who was addicted to and occasionally sold opioids, also once used the Land Rover to travel to a location where he sold heroin to undercover officers. He was arrested on his way to another sale, and law enforcement seized the vehicle.

Timbs eventually pleaded guilty to one count of dealing a controlled substance and one count of conspiracy to commit theft. He fought the seizure of his vehicle, arguing that its value was more than four times the $10,000 maximum criminal fine available. The state of Indiana countered that the excessive fines clause of the U.S. Constitution does not apply to the states and also that civil asset forfeitures are not punitive, and that it was therefore entitled to keep the Land Rover.

Timbs v. Indiana made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a unanimous ruling, the justices ordered Indiana to reconsider the case. Timbs eventually got his Land Rover back.

Segrest argues persuasively that Holt’s case is similar to Timbs. The financial penalties associated with the crimes Holt is accused of are steep: The manufacturing charge alone could carry a fine of up to $60,000. Segrest argues that “[t]he arresting officers inflated the charges against Mr. Holt to felonies … in order to justify the unlawful taking of property with a value of approximately $60,000.”

In other words, his hunch is that law enforcement deliberately over-charged Holt to build a case for the eventual forfeiture of his valuables. If true, that would mean they decided it was worth exposing a medically compromised father of two to a lengthy prison term because they wanted to keep his flashy car and his cash.

Given Alabama law enforcement’s track record of using civil asset forfeiture laws to seize things like acres of peach-growing land a Chilton County sheriff hoped to repurpose as a shooting range, it is not a stretch of the imagination to be skeptical of state state’s motives. Certainly, the Lee County District Attorney’s office that is pursuing the forfeiture deserves extra scrutiny: In Nov. 2020, a special grand jury indicted District Attorney Brandon Hughes for eight felonies, including violating the state ethics act, conspiring to commit first-degree theft, and first-degree perjury. The indictment alleges a myriad of ways Hughes used his office for personal gain. Among other things, he is alleged to have conspired to steal a pickup truck from a Chambers County business and to have added three of his children to the office payroll. Hughes was District Attorney at the time Holt was charged.

“The cycle continues every day” – For Holt, and for law enforcement agencies who profit from unproven crimes

Litigation is not the only way to protect Holt and other Alabamians, including the many individuals whose seized property is less than the cost of the lawyer they would need to get it back. In 2021, a bipartisan group of Alabama lawmakers introduced a bill that would end civil asset forfeiture in case like Holt’s.

SB 210 would end civil asset forfeiture in criminal drug offenses and replace it with a unified criminal process. It would also require most criminal forfeitures happen after proof of conviction, making it much harder to law enforcement to keep otherwise lawful property that wasn’t clearly shown to be the fruits or instrumentality of criminal activity.

The state could still take and keep contraband such as controlled substances or gambling machines, but it would have to prove to a judge’s satisfaction that any otherwise lawful property like vehicles, cash, or other valuables seized had something to do with criminal activity before it could keep them.

If passed, SB 210 would also extend access to counsel in criminal cases to any related forfeiture proceedings, meaning that people would no longer have to pay for a lawyer to recover their own property even if they were found not guilty or never even charged with a crime. It would expand opportunities for people like Holt to get their valuables back prior to their criminal conviction, including if the valuables are “not reasonably required to be held for evidentiary reasons.” And it would create a proportionality hearing enabling people like Holt to argue that even if their property were incidentally used in the commission of a crime, the harm caused by its forfeiture would be excessive.

Quan Holt is facing a possible prison sentence for possession of marijuana, a substance legal in states where more than half of Americans live.

Nor is forfeiture reform the only law that, if passed, could protect people like Holt. This session, the Alabama legislature will consider two bills with the potential to put Alabama’s marijuana policy more in line with the rest of America’s. The first, filed by Sen. Tim Melson (R-Florence), would legalize medical marijuana for treatment of about 20 conditions, including intractable pain. The second, filed by Sen. Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) would reclassify possession of small amounts of marijuana as a fine-only offense. In a state where Black people like Mr. Holt are four times as likely as their white peers to be arrested for possession of marijuana despite robust, longstanding evidence that the two groups use marijuana at roughly the same rate, marijuana policy reform of both types is a critical and long-overdue step.

For Holt – broke, depressed, in pain, still responsible for supporting himself and two children, and no longer in possession the vehicle he needs to get to and from work – all of these laws would have made a world of difference had they been passed prior to his neighbor’s decision to turn him in.

“It does feel like it’s overwhelming at times,” he said. “My mom comes and picks me up every morning to take me to work and she picks me up when I get off to bring me back to the house. And the cycle continues every day.”

 

By Leah Nelson

Leah.Nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

ELMORE, ALA. (Nov. 9, 2020) – Sean Worsley finally walked through the gates of Staton Correctional Facility this morning and into the arms of his wife Eboni. It was a moment nearly 11 months in the making.

Sean Worsley reunites with his wife Eboni Worsley after being released from Draper prison. Photo by Jill Friedman

Worsley is a disabled Black veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart in connection with his service disabling roadside bombs in Iraq. He was arrested in 2016 in Gordo, Ala., for the mistake of bringing his legally prescribed medical marijuana from his home state of Arizona into Alabama, where possession of any amount of marijuana for any reason can be a felony. He pleaded guilty in 2017 and was sentenced to probation, and allowed to serve that sentence in Arizona.

Homelessness, financial instability, and the differences between Arizona and Alabama drug laws thwarted his efforts to comply with the terms of his probation. He was arrested in January; then a Pickens County judge revoked his probation and sentenced him to five years in prison.

His bid for parole was granted last month.

Worsley emerged this morning into a world turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic, a dramatic presidential election, and months of civil unrest over police violence against Black Americans.  His journey since his Jan. 11 arrest in Arizona has been an object lesson in how government resources were squandered on over-punishing a Black man. Worsley spent two months in jail in Maricopa County, Ariz. awaiting transport to Alabama. In March, he endured 10 days in a prison transport van that made multiple stops in far-flung locations before depositing him in the Pickens County Jail in Carrollton, Ala. He would stay there all spring and summer because the pandemic slowed inmate transfers from county jails to Department of Corrections prisons.

Sean Worsley, a Purple Heart veteran incarcerated by the State of Alabama for medical marijuana, finally has something to smile about. He is free. Photo by Jill Friedman

 

The jail was vile. According to Worsley, the bathroom was full of mold and the dorm was infested with spiders, cockroaches, and other vermin. Worsley said there was no doctor on staff, and the nurses were reluctant to refer even serious complaints of medical distress to a doctor. Many of the men, including Worsley, suffered from mental health conditions exacerbated by the wretched environment and lack of anything productive to do.

Prisoners without family or friends to help them could not afford to supplement the inadequate prison meals with food from the commissary, so they went hungry. They also lacked regular access to sufficient soap and other personal hygiene items, even as the pandemic made those things more essential than ever. Corrections officers forced one inmate Worsley was jailed with into a shower to retaliate for the inmate’s complaints about bedding that smelled of urine. Sometimes, Worsley’s mail was kept from him without explanation. “I feel like I’m being thrown away by a country I went and served for,” he wrote Appleseed in a June letter from jail.  Worsley saw terrified men crying, coughing, and begging for medical attention. To pass the time, he slept as much as he could.

In late September, Worsley was at last transported to Draper Correctional Facility, a previously decommissioned prison that was reopened during the pandemic so newly arriving prisoners could quarantine for 14 days before moving along to their next destination. Though his religious beliefs forbid him to cut his hair, corrections officials shaved his head before admitting him to Draper, likely a violation of his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects prisoners from needless incursions on their right to practice their faiths.

Sean rejoins his wife, Eboni, who has advocated for him through his 11-month incarceration for bringing legally prescribed medical marijuana in Alabama. Behind them is Draper prison, one of Alabama’s notoriously horrific state prison, where this disabled veteran was housed. Photo by Jill Friedman

When Worsley finally completed quarantine, he was assigned to Staton Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Elmore, Ala. Other incarcerated men stole his lock and other essential belongings almost as soon as he arrived.

Worsley witnessed a fight and guards taking a huge knife from another prisoner. Knives were routine and his own life was threatened. He was forced to find a different place to sleep after it emerged that the bunk he had been assigned was directly below an area inmates used to store contraband, including cell phones. Some of his fellow prisoners availed themselves of the illegal contraband drugs that are routinely smuggled into Alabama prisons. Worsley witnessed their violent reactions to K2, a synthetic compound that can cause anxiety, paranoia, aggression, seizures, and death. He saw the horrific consequences when inmates snuck illicit drugs into the tobacco smoked by another prisoner they hated, and watched the victim melt down and bang his head on the floor as he suffered hallucinations. The guards, Worsley said, were aware of most of the illegal, dangerous activity that was going on but were powerless or unwilling to stop it.

None of this is surprising. Alabama’s jails, which are run by its counties, are notoriously disorganized and under-resourced. Corruption is not uncommon. Last year in Pickens County, where Worsley was held from March through September, a former sheriff was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison after he stole $400,000 money from the food allowance intended to feed inmates. To feed the inmates in his care, he defrauded a local food bank and his own church, taking almost half a million pounds of food at extremely low cost to himself.

Alabama’s prisons are even worse. Put simply, they are dangerous, corrupt, violent, and infested with contraband including drugs, weapons, and cell phones. Twice in as many years, the U.S. Department of Justice has deemed Alabama’s men’s prison system in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Sean and Eboni visit with Appleseed’s Leah Nelson, who first shared the story of Sean’s incarceration and continued to advocate for his release until he was freed Nov. 9. Photo by Jill Friedman

 

Veterans comprise nearly 10 percent of Alabama’s state population according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They are well represented in its prisons, yet but for one dorm at Bibb Correctional Facility, there is precious little programming for them despite the relatively high rate of PTSD and other ailments that combat can result in. As for mental health treatment for the prison population overall, a federal judge in 2017 deemed it “horrendously inadequate” and ordered the Department of Corrections to take immediate action to improve conditions. In 2020, that same judge found that DOC had been “unable or unwilling to take necessary steps to monitor its own practices” regarding mental health care.

Sean Worsley served in the U.S. Army, earning a Purple Heart for injuries suffered in Iraq.

Worsley already suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder because of his service in Iraq when he was thrown into Alabama’s war zone of a corrections system. Now that he is out, he will have a great deal of adjusting to do. But a cross-sector of supporters from right here in Alabama, has emerged to help, all of whom recognized the inanity of incarcerating a disabled war hero for medical marijuana. He will soon start job training through the Dannon Project, a re-entry program that serves nonviolent offenders in Jefferson and Shelby Counties, and he has a job offer waiting for him at BLOX, a construction firm in Bessemer. He also has the support of a skilled therapist, a loving wife, and the community that has come together to support him since the story of his incarceration for marijuana possession was first published on June 30.

Even so, this man who sacrificed his youth and health to serve America will need time to heal. As Alabama observes an unusually subdued Veterans Day, let us contemplate the treatment Sean Worsley endured in the name of “law and order.” Let us be inspired by his story as we promise to take the urgent steps to change drug policy and enact long-overdue criminal justice reforms. Let us do things differently in his name.

 

By Leah Nelson

leah.nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

In August 2016, a disabled Black veteran named Sean Worsley brought his legally prescribed medical marijuana with him on a road trip from Arizona to North Carolina. On his way through Alabama, Worsley, who earned a Purple Heart in connection with injuries sustained during his 15 months disabling bombs and retrieving the body parts of dead comrades as a Combat Engineer in Iraq, stopped for gas. He played air guitar and clowned around to entertain his wife while waiting for the tank to fill.

Sean Worsley served in the U.S. Army before becoming disabled with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury in Iraq.

Worsley’s playful behavior and the music the couple was playing caught the attention of a police officer who approached and asked to search the vehicle. The couple agreed, even volunteering that he would find Worsley’s medical marijuana and attempting to show him Worsley’s medical marijuana card.

The officer found roughly a third of an ounce of marijuana and arrested both of them. Convinced that the grinder and digital scale Worsley had with him to measure out his doses was evidence that he was a drug dealer, he charged Worsley with possession “for other than personal use,” a felony in Alabama. Worsley, who due to his combat injuries is considered by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to be 100 percent disabled and in need of “maximal assistance” with basic day-to-day activities, pleaded guilty a year later. He was sentenced to five years’ probation and permitted to serve that sentence in Arizona, where he had lived at the time of the arrest.

But keeping up with probation requirements isn’t always easy, or even possible. Probation officers require their charges to have a stable address, but Worsley and his wife, Eboni, had become homeless in the turmoil that followed his conviction. Another Catch-22 stemmed from the Alabama court’s requirement that Worsley participate in substance abuse treatment as part of his sentence. Worsley tried to get into such a program, but the Phoenix Department of Veteran’s Affairs turned him away, citing the fact that he does not have a substance abuse issue and was only using marijuana as legally prescribed by a doctor. 

From Alabama’s point of view, Worsley’s inability to comply with the terms of his probation was unacceptable. Worsley had three prior felonies at the time of his 2016 arrest, connected with an incident involving a bad check and some marijuana that occurred a few months after his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army Reserves. Alabama could have used those felonies to imprison him immediately after his guilty plea, but it didn’t. That was as generous as the state was willing to be. He incurred another felony in January 2020: His Arizona medical marijuana card expired and he did not have the $250 to renew it but kept medicating himself anyway. He was charged with felony possession in Arizona when police pulled him over for a routine traffic stop. 

In March 2020, Alabama extradited Worsley from Arizona and sentenced him to five years in prison. 

Since April of 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice has twice determined that conditions in Alabama’s prison system for men are so bad that they violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Alabama’s prisons for men are the most deadly in the nation, suffer from corrupt staffing and management, and are flooded with drugs. In 2017, a federal judge found their mental health services to be “horrendously inadequate” and this week ordered federal monitoring because of the system’s inability to sustain improvements without oversight. 

Knowing this, Worsley’s wife and mother were terrified about what would happen to him behind bars. They marshalled a coalition of the unlikeliest of allies in an effort to get him out: A friend of Worsley’s from kindergarten who grew up to become a Republican operative; an Alabama legislator and his husband who are former U.S. Marines; a formerly incarcerated music producer turned advocate who is friendly with Snoop Dogg and Charles Koch; a retired federal magistrate judge; retired Alabama corrections officials; a battalion of veteran’s rights advocates and cannabis advocates. And human rights advocates, including the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, the Montgomery-based public policy organization where I work as research director. 

Everyone got to work. The veterans organized a rally outside the jail where Worsley was being held, holding signs that read “He’s my brother” and “We leave no one behind.” The advocates and lawyers found a statutory mechanism by which Worsley could be permitted to serve his sentence under supervision in the community rather than behind razor wire. We found him a full-time job and lined up pro bono counseling services with a therapist who specializes in treating traumatized veterans. 

More than 2,000 people donated a total of nearly $100,000 dollars online. Some of that helped Eboni Worsley move to Alabama and rent a home in Birmingham, where the judge who oversees Veteran’s Treatment Court agreed to supervise Worsley if he were transferred to Community Corrections. Dozens of people came together across professions and political divides to assemble an airtight re-entry plan with extraordinary levels of support. Worsley paid Pickens County the $3,858.40 in fines, fees, and court costs that had been assessed against him. The Alabama Department of Corrections deemed him suitable for transfer. 

All that the plan required was for the judge to exercise his lawful discretion to accept Worsley’s transfer into this community-based supervision in light of what so many people recognized to be a clear injustice and a waste of state resources.

That is not what happened. In a Sept. 3 order that focused on Worsley’s history of low-level, nonviolent offenses and probation violations, the judge denied the Community Corrections transfer request:  “Because the Defendant has fled this jurisdiction both times he was released, failed to comply with any condition of bond or probation and has 5 felony convictions, including one he received while on probation from this Court’s sentence, this Court finds that the Defendant is not a suitable candidate for placement in the Community Corrections Program,” the judge wrote. “Therefore, the request is DENIED.”

Pickens County District Attorney Andy Hamlin has repeatedly said that he could have pushed for Mr. Worsley’s immediate incarceration from the start. “Remember, at the time of the plea, he was a four-time convicted felon. Given his circumstances and military service, I used discretion and asked the court to put him on probation. I must apply the law consistently and fairly with every case that comes through my office. Any special treatment to Mr. Worsley would have set a precedent that would have been unfair to others with similar histories and charges,” Mr. Hamlin wrote in an email to Appleseed.

“We find ourselves here not because of failed policies or any nefarious act by anyone that works in law  enforcement or the court system, but because Mr. Worsley failed to exercise any personal responsibility or agency,” Hamlin wrote.  

Any day now, a fragile, disabled man who sacrificed his health and youth to serve his country will be thrown into the most dangerous prisons in America – prisons that have been declared unconstitutional, and which do not have any semblance of functioning mental health services – because he made the mistake of bringing legally prescribed medication into a state where that medication is not legal, and because his homelessness, disability, and the differences between Alabama and Arizona drug laws prevented him from successfully complying with probation. 

Sean and Eboni Worsley

It’s tempting to describe what was done to Sean Worsley as a travesty of justice. But that would imply that what happened to him is a distortion of how our justice system is meant to work. In Worsley’s case, our state’s justice system operated exactly as we have designed it to. What was done to Worsley was the result of Alabama laws being followed to the letter.

Over the years, Alabama lawmakers have had before them an array of bills that could have radically changed the outcome of Worsley’s unintentional violation of Alabama law. They knew that Black people are more than four times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama despite both races using marijuana at roughly the same rate, yet declined to decriminalize simple possession of even small amounts. They knew that disparities in how Black and white communities are policed mean that Black people are far more likely to have criminal histories, yet took few steps to reduce the weight prior convictions would carry in determining a person’s sentence. They knew probation was costly and that people who lack resources struggle to comply with its demands, yet they took no steps to fix it. They knew our prisons were unconstitutionally overcrowded and deadly but have refused to act with urgency about the causes of the crisis. 

This is a summer of racial reckoning. On August 31, the white coach of the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide led his mostly Black team in a Black Lives Matter march to the Tuscaloosa schoolhouse door that George Wallace once blocked. Four days later, in a courthouse just one county over, Alabama’s criminal punishment system shambled on, working exactly how it’s meant to – exactly as we let it work, despite knowing the terrible consequences. 

 

By Leah Nelson, Appleseed Research Director | Leah.Nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

PICKENS COUNTY — Sean and Eboni Worsley’s nightmare began with music a police officer found too loud for his liking.

It was August 2016, and the Worsleys were on their way east, heading from a visit with Eboni’s folks in Mississippi to surprise Sean’s family in North Carolina. Sean’s grandmother had been displaced by a hurricane and he was hoping to help rebuild her house. The couple had some venison in the trunk of their car, a gift from Eboni’s dad, a hunter, that they planned to share with Sean’s family. 

Army veteran Sean Worsley earned a Purple Heart in Iraq

Sean, now 33, is a disabled veteran with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his deployment in Iraq. He uses medical marijuana to calm his nightmares and soothe his back pain. His medical marijuana was in the back seat. He got the prescription in Arizona, where medical marijuana has been legal since 2011.

Sean was walking into the gas station when Officer Carl Abramo of the Gordo, Ala. police department approached the car. He told the Worsleys their music was too loud. He asked to search the vehicle. 

The Worsleys assented. Sean’s marijuana was legally prescribed. They thought they had nothing to hide. 

They were wrong. And now Sean has been sentenced to five years in Alabama’s violent, drug-filled, corrupt prison system because of it.

Playing Air Guitar while Black

On August 15, 2016, at 11:08 PM, Officer Carl Abramo was stationed across from the Jet Pep on Highway 82, a major east-west thoroughfare that runs from New Mexico to Georgia. According to an arrest report filed five days after the incident, he heard loud music coming from a vehicle and “observed a Black male get out of the passenger side vehicle. They were pulled up at a pump and the Black male began playing air guitar, dancing, and shaking his head. He was laughing and joking around and looking at the driver while doing all this.”

The couple was Sean and Eboni Worsley, who had stopped a few miles from the Pickens County border to refuel their car. Abramo told them their music was so loud it violated the town’s noise ordinance. They turned it down. According to the arrest report, he smelled marijuana and asked the couple about it. Sean told him he was a disabled veteran and tried to give him his medical marijuana card.

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

Abramo called for backup and three more officers arrived. Eboni explained that they were unaware that medical marijuana was prohibited in Alabama. According to the arrest report, she told Abramo the marijuana was in the back seat. 

Abramo searched the car. He 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 Eboni had a prescription for. He arrested them for all of it. Pickens is one of Alabama’s 23 partially dry counties, so it is technically illegal to possess most alcohol there — though in practice, the rule is only enforced against violators who are profiting from its sale. He arrested them for that, and for violating the noise ordinance and for illegal possession of marijuana and paraphernalia. Eboni’s pills weren’t in the original bottle, which Abramo claimed constituted a felony. He put the handcuffs on her himself. 

Sean Worsley, and his wife Eboni, in happier days

In 2016, the year the Worsleys were arrested, Black people were more than four times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana in Alabama.

The Worsleys spent six days in jail. Their lives would never be the same.

Marijuana is a Schedule One Controlled Substance, meaning that the federal government views it as illegal in all instances. Alabama hews to much the same line: except for extremely narrow exemptions involving CBD, possession of any amount can be a felony. First-time possession is charged as a misdemeanor if the arresting officer thinks it was for personal use; all subsequent instances of possession are felonies. If the arresting officer believes the marijuana is for “other than personal use,” then possession of any amount can be charged as a felony even if it’s an individual’s first time being arrested for possession.

That’s what happened to the Worsleys. Even though Sean’s marijuana was legally obtained via a prescription and packaged in a prescription bottle, Abramo booked him in for possession for other than personal use, a Class C felony. Eboni received the same charge, though it was later dropped.

Abramo, who no longer works for the Gordo Police Department and could not be reached for comment, takes a dim view of those he deems to be criminals. His Facebook page is a mishmash of pro-law enforcement videos and memes that demean Muslims, Mexicans, and Democrats. Nearly all the pro-law enforcement posts feature Black people taking up for the police, a common tactic among conservatives seeking to demonstrate that they are not racist. Many of the rest of his Facebook posts promote racist birther conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama and villainize non-white people and ethnic or religious minorities. One meme, shared in July 2019, states, “Homeless Veterans Should Be Taken Care Of BEFORE Muslim ‘Refugees.’”

“We watched people die. We watched helicopters shoot people down.”

Things would have gone differently if the Worsleys had been traveling through most other states. Recreational use of marijuana is legal in 14 states; medical marijuana is legal in 33. It is commonly used by veterans and others to manage the symptoms of a wide range of ailments, including PTSD and pain. Sean suffered from both as a result of his military service, for which he was awarded a Purple Heart.

In fact, when Sean was 28, the VA determined that he was “totally and permanently disabled due solely to [his] service-connected disabilities,” according to a February 2015 benefits summary letter included in his Veteran’s Health Administration (VHA) records. He suffered from a traumatic brain injury that seriously impaired his short-term memory, as well as PTSD, depression, nightmares, and back and shoulder pain. In 2015, Sean’s impulsivity, cognitive difficulties, sleep disturbances and depression were so debilitating that the VHA determined he required a caregiver. Eboni, then 30, took on that role. Sean’s “dependence level” was high, requiring “maximal assistance” with planning and organizing, safety risks, sleep regulation, and recent memory, and “total assistance” with self-regulation. He responded poorly to the various antidepressants, antipsychotics, and pain medications doctors prescribed. 

At times, that meant Eboni couldn’t work, leaving the couple dependent on Sean’s check from the VA. When he could, he supplemented that with part-time work as a roofer and gigs as a recording engineer. Eboni went with him to doctor’s appointments. She helped him keep track of his schoolwork when he sought a business degree to transform his freelance work as a recording engineer into a business. 

The VA does not prescribe or fill prescriptions for medical marijuana, nor may VA clinicians recommend its use. However, in light of marijuana’s efficacy in treating ailments common among veterans such as pain and PTSD, the VA is tolerant of veterans who use legally prescribed marijuana. In its official policy document regarding medical marijuana, the VA encourages clinicians and pharmacists to “discuss marijuana use with any Veterans requesting information about marijuana.” A social worker at the VA in Arizona where Sean received care said medical marijuana use is common among her clients and that she has seen how helpful it can be for people suffering PTSD.

Ellis English was Sean’s first-line supervisor while they were deployed together in Iraq in 2006-07. Like Sean, he suffers from PTSD as a result of his deployment. Unlike Sean, he has been unable to use medical marijuana. 

English retired from the Army in 2018. He now lives in Honolulu, where medical marijuana has been legal for two decades. He reports that most of his fellow Army veterans there treat their symptoms with medical marijuana. English wishes he could do the same. But because he works for the federal government, he cannot use marijuana without risking his job. 

He tried it once anyway when he was overwhelmed by a PTSD flare-up following his retirement. “It was really good. For once I felt relaxed. I didn’t have any pain. No headaches,” he said. “I felt almost normal.”

English remembers what Sean was like before the traumatic brain injury and the PTSD. He also remembers the incidents that caused them. Sean was English’s driver in Iraq, taking him and other troops on dangerous missions to look for and dismantle improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Often, those devices exploded while the troops were there.

It was dangerous, terrifying work. “We were constantly going. We watched people die. We watched helicopters shoot people down. Had to go pick up the bodies,” English said.

English was with Sean when he received the traumatic brain injury that led to Sean being awarded a Purple Heart. Sean was knocked unconscious and had to be pulled out of the driver’s seat. One soldier lost his hearing on the mission. 

Sean changed after that, English said. The young soldier who used to work hard and get things done quickly became unreliable. He zoned out in the middle of work. He stopped taking care of himself. His personal hygiene declined. 

One night, he showed up in English’s room weeping and clutching his rifle. English was afraid he was going to kill himself and referred him to mental health. He no longer felt safe having Sean drive him. 

“I got him into mental health, he was off the mission for a while,” English said. “Finally, he came back but he wasn’t the same.”

Altogether, Sean spent five years in the military. His deployment to Iraq spanned 14 months, and he was honorably discharged September 22, 2008. Even after his injuries, he served in the Army Reserve until late 2010.  

Neither his service, nor his Purple Heart, nor his prescription mattered in Pickens County, Alabama.

What happened next

After six days in jail, the Worsleys were released on bond. It wasn’t cheap: On top of fees to the bail bondsman, they had to pay $400 to get their car out of impound. The meat in the trunk had gone bad after six days locked in a car in Alabama’s brutal summer heat, so the car needed to be professionally cleaned. But at least they were free.

That freedom was short-lived. For a state so eager to honor veterans, Alabama’s justice system produces some confounding results. This system’s determination to punish Sean set off a spiral of job loss, homelessness, additional criminal charges, and eventually incarceration in the country’s most violent prison system — all for a substance that’s legal in states where half of Americans live. 

But first, Sean and Eboni drove back home to Arizona. They found the charges made it difficult for them to maintain housing and stability, so they moved to Nevada, where they acquired a home and lived peacefully while their case progressed.  

Almost a year later, the bail bondsman called. He told the Worsleys that the judge was revoking bonds on all the cases he managed. He said 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 felt the bondsman had been kind to them when they were in Pickens County, so they borrowed money to make the trip and hit the road. They were due in court the next day. 

When they got to court, the Worsleys were taken to separate rooms. Eboni was horrified. She explained that Sean was disabled with serious cognitive issues, that he had PTSD, that he needed a guardian to help him understand the process and ensure he made an informed decision. If a legal guardian couldn’t be appointed, she offered to serve as his advocate in court as she served as his caregiver at home.

“They said no, and they literally locked me in a room separate from him. And his conversation with me is that they told him that if he didn’t sign the plea agreement that we would have to stay incarcerated until December and that they would charge me with the same charges as they charged him,” Eboni said. “He said because of that, he just signed it.”

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 had lived in Arizona at the time of their arrest, his probation was transferred to Arizona, instead of Nevada, where they lived. Transferring it again would mean another lengthy delay and more jail time while the paperwork was sorted out, they were told. 

Sean could not bear to stay. The Worsleys got a two-week pass from the probation officer in Alabama, drove home, broke their lease, and packed their things. When they arrived in Arizona, the only housing they could find on short notice was a costly month-to-month rental. Their funds were depleted, but at least they had a place to stay. 

The Worsleys were ready to start rebuilding their lives. But when they checked in with the Arizona probation officer, she told them that their month-to-month rental did not constitute a permanent address. She would not approve it for purposes of supervision and told them to contact probation in Alabama. They did, and the Alabama probation officer told them they would have to return to Pickens County to sign paperwork to redo the transfer. They didn’t have the money to do that, so they asked their Alabama lawyer if it could be done by proxy and proceeded with attempting to comply with the other terms of Sean’s probation.

Among those was drug treatment. Had he been an Alabama resident, Sean would have participated in mandatory programming through Alabama’s Court Referral, one of several diversion programs operating across the state. The terms of his probation required him to seek similar services where he lived, so in February 2018, Sean went to the VA to take an assessment for placement in drug treatment. 

The VA rejected him. A letter from VA Mental Health Integrated Specialty Services reads in part, “Mr. Worsley reports smoking Cannabis for medical purposes and has legal documentation to support his use and therefore does not meet criteria for a substance use disorder or meet need for substance abuse treatment.”

The Worsleys maintained contact with their Alabama lawyer and probation officer as best they could, but things were difficult. Eboni, a certified nursing assistant who works with traumatized children, had a job offer 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 again found themselves homeless. They requested assistance from a program that helps homeless veterans. Just as they completed the six-month program, the VA notified Sean that his benefits would be stopped because Alabama had issued a fugitive warrant for his arrest. Unknown to Sean, he had missed a February court date in Pickens County and the Pickens County Supervision Program had terminated his supervision, citing “failure to attend” and “failure to pay court-ordered moneys.” The case was referred to the district attorney’s office in March 2019.

The Worsleys were in a terrible situation. Eboni needed heart surgery, and Sean had to stop taking on extra gigs so he could help her recover. Rent was expensive, anywhere from $1,200-$1,500 a month, and they had a car loan as well. To cover costs, the couple took out a title loan, but they were unable to keep up with it. They lost Eboni’s truck. They lost their home and again had to move into a temporary rental, paying $400 a week to live in a suburb about an hour from the hospital where Eboni still had frequent appointments.

Sean was able to get his check started up again around August 2019, but the financial hole they were in was so deep that he didn’t have the $250 to renew his medical marijuana card. It expired.

In early 2020, Sean was pulled over on his way to Eboni’s sister’s home, where he was going to help with a minor repair. He had some marijuana with him. The officers who pulled him over noticed he was terrified. They asked him why. According to Eboni, he told them everything: about this PTSD, his traumatic brain injury, the expired card, the outstanding warrant from Alabama. The officers told him not to worry; Alabama would never extradite him over a little marijuana. It would be OK.

But when they called to make sure, Alabama said it wanted to bring Sean back to Pickens County. When the Arizona police told him, he ran. He fell. He was taken to jail, and eventually, he was transported to Pickens County at a cost to the state of Alabama of $4,345. The state moved to make Sean pay that money himself, on top of the $3,833.40 he already owed in fines, fees, and court costs.

“I feel like I’m being thrown away by a country I went and served for.”

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. 

Over the last three years, there have been robust efforts in the Alabama legislature to modify the state’s marijuana laws. A bill legalizing medical marijuana under controlled conditions passed the full Senate this year before the session ended due to Covid-19. A bill reclassifying possession of two ounces or less as a civil offense passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2019. Reforms that could have created a vastly different outcome for Sean Worsley are on the horizon.

At the same time, lawmakers who support changes to the law undermine their urgency by insisting that marijuana possession does not land people in prison. Sen. Cam Ward, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told a reporter in 2018, “The only people in state prisons on possession of any kind of marijuana are those trafficking the truckloads of it.”  

Them, and disabled Black veterans playing air guitar at the wrong time while passing through Alabama.

Sean’s mother hired an attorney to appeal the case, and that process has begun. But sometime in the next several weeks, Sean will almost certainly go to prison. His transport there will be delayed due to Covid-19, which has sickened prisoners at several facilities and killed at least five. He’ll be quarantined for a couple of weeks at Draper Correctional Facility, which was condemned as unsafe and unsanitary for occupation, then refurbished for Covid-19 quarantines this year. Assuming he’s well, Sean will then be released to whichever prison has space for him. 

Alabama’s entire prison system for men was found by the U.S. Department of Justice to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. A U.S. District Judge has deemed its mental health services “horrendously inadequate.” It is almost certain Sean’s mental health will decline further in prison. The Alabama Department of Corrections, which has the highest homicide rate in the country, cannot keep him safe. 

Eboni in the hospital for heart surgery

He’ll leave behind two children from a prior relationship, ages 12 and 14, who according to Eboni have already struggled with his absence. He’ll leave behind Eboni, who is due to have another major surgery without her husband and best friend by her side. 

In a letter to Alabama Appleseed from the Pickens County jail, Sean expressed despair at being away from his children and from Eboni. He feels humiliated at having to call them from jail, crushed that he is, as he put it, “letting them down” over an arrest stemming from efforts he was making to keep himself healthy. “I feel like I’m being thrown away by a country I went and served for,” he wrote. “I feel like I lost parts of me in Iraq, parts of my spirit and soul that I can’t ever get back.”

Ellis English, Sean’s friend and former supervisor — another Black veteran who has himself been pulled over more times than he can count — feels the same way. “You go over there. You come home messed up. Then you still get targeted” by police, English said. “That’s what hurts the most.”

 

By Leah Nelson, Appleseed Research Director

As Alabama struggles to contain Covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus that has gripped the world’s attention since January, law enforcement officials and judges across the state have taken bold steps to prioritize public health over punishment by slowing arrests for low-level offenses and releasing from jails individuals who are not a danger to the community.

The results have been extraordinary. Between January and late April, at least 13 counties shrank their jail populations by more than a quarter, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Baldwin and Houston counties, both notorious for their tough-on-crime conservatism, each reduced their jail population by about a third. Alabama’s largest county, Jefferson, with a jail capacity of 1,200, dropped its population below 650.

These counties’ decisive action has likely saved lives. Nationally, prisons and jails have been hotspots for the virus’ spread. That’s certainly true in Tuscaloosa, which on May 21 acknowledged that 21 inmates and one employee at its jail had tested positive for the virus, even as the city overall saw a 35% increase in the number of cases.

Yet instead of responding by releasing low-level offenders from what could easily become a literal death trap, Tuscaloosa’s police chief has announced plans to round up and jail more people.              Though crime is down in the city, Chief Brent Blankley – who since his appointment in February has overseen roundups of low-level offenders including 116 misdemeanor arrests – announced  this week about a plan to “take our streets back.”

Among other things, he plans to increase traffic stops by buying tint meters. In Tuscaloosa, the crime of “Improper Window Tint” carries a penalty of $182. It also gives police an excuse to pull people over, often leading to additional financial penalties, vehicle searches, arrest, and incarceration for things such as unpaid traffic tickets or marijuana possession.

Blankley’s plan, dubbed “Operation Safe Streets,” is being rolled out as Tuscaloosa’s streets are stalked by a silent, invisible killer that has disproportionately haunted black lives in Alabama and across the country. Although Alabama’s population is about 27% black, 42% of confirmed cases of Covid-19 are within the black population, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

“Operation Safe Streets” also rolls out amid breathtaking reminders that black lives are also disproportionately taken by police and vigilante violence. Tuscaloosa has a history of racially biased  police practices. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, black residents were 4.1 times as likely as white residents to be arrested for possession of marijuana. This, in a college town; this, amid robust and longstanding evidence that white and black people use marijuana, and therefore possess it, at roughly the same rates.

In an America on edge – and in some places on fire – in response to the death in police custody of a Minneapolis man named George Floyd who told the police officer whose knee rested on his neck, “I can’t breathe,” Tuscaloosa’s police chief has decided the best use of public resources is tint meters that will in all likelihood be used to pull over, cite, arrest, and incarcerate black bodies in a jail that is riddled with a disease that has disproportionately sickened and killed them.

      Tuscaloosa should think hard about what kind of city it wants to be. Right now, it is the kind of city that brags of a plan to funnel residents with windows it deems too dark into a jail unable to protect them from a deadly pathogen. This plan endangers the lives of the people who are arrested, the police who take them into custody, jail employees, and the families and communities they return to.

Operation Safe Streets will put the people of Tuscaloosa in harm’s way. At a time when safe jails are out of reach, it is unconscionable.

By Carla Crowder, Appleseed Executive Director

Birmingham, Ala. — A little more justice slowly made its way into Alabama this week.

Roberto Cruz, a 71-year-old man who had been sentenced to die in prison for a case involving marijuana – that’s right, only marijuana – was resentenced to time served and will soon be released from Donaldson prison.

Mr. Cruz’s odyssey through the Alabama court system contains so many remarkable elements it’s hard to know where to start. In 2003, he was charged with drug trafficking when the vehicle he was a passenger in was pulled over in Warrior and police found 25 pounds of marijuana in the trunk.  The driver received a 3-year split sentence and was deported.  Mr. Cruz was sentenced to Life Without Parole.

Roberto Cruz was ensnared in a system that has some of the country’s harshest sentences and lowest weight thresholds for marijuana offenses, Jefferson County Judge Stephen Wallace found, when he resentenced Mr. Cruz to time served.

The State’s primary evidence, according to Jefferson County Circuit Judge Stephen Wallace’s order: “[C]ircumstantial evidence suggesting that since the defendant was a passenger in the vehicle and marijuana has a strong odor, then he must have known about the drugs.”

At trial in 2005, Mr. Cruz’s attorney offered no mitigating evidence nor objection to the State’s use of prior convictions from 1985 to enhance his sentence under the Habitual Felony Offender Act. It took almost 16 years for the Alabama justice system to correct this error. Turns out, the State was not permitted to use those old convictions, all of which were drug crimes stemming from a single incident in Georgia.  Well-established Alabama case law excludes drug convictions prior to 1987 for use in HFOA sentencing because drug crimes had their own recidivist statute until then. But no one in Judge Gloria Bahakel’s Jefferson County courtroom 15 years ago could be bothered to point that out.

The story of how this error got corrected speaks volumes about the frailties in Alabama’s justice system and the harm done to defendants without access to money. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence.  Incarcerated and without the benefit of counsel, Mr. Cruz filed post-conviction petitions that went nowhere. Then investigators with the Southern Poverty Law Center discovered his case while researching marijuana trafficking cases. They put Mr. Cruz’s plight on the radar of Jefferson County Public Defender Adam Danneman, who vigorously took on the case.

Judge Wallace’s order, most importantly, provides immediate release to a 71-year-old man who has no business at Donaldson prison. But it goes further in pointing out the “disturbing” reality that Alabama is still sending people to prison forever for marijuana, a substance legal in 11 states, and decriminalized in 16 more. “Commercial distribution of cannabis is allowed in all jurisdictions where it has been legalized, except for Vermont and the District of Columbia,” he wrote.  Even in the surrounding southern states of Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee, Alabama’s weight threshold for a trafficking conviction – greater than 2.2 pounds – is way out of line.

“Judge Wallace’s order hits the nail on the head. We have the lowest thresholds and the harshest punishments in the country for marijuana in this state,” Mr. Danneman told me. “Regardless of how you feel about the legalization/decriminalization of weed, 15 plus years in prison is a shockingly harsh punishment. I’m glad we were able to do something about it.”

Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center focused on Alabama’s harsh marijuana laws in our report, Alabama’s War on Marijuana: Accessing the Fiscal and Human Toll of Criminalization. We found that marijuana enforcement costs Alabama taxpayers $22 million per year, a cost worth examining given the enormous state budget shortfalls anticipated by the COVID-related economic downturn and court closures.

The human costs are much worse.

In leaving prison as an older person once sentenced to die there, Mr. Cruz is in good company.  Within the last year, 72-year-old Geneva Cooley and 58-year-old Alvin Kennard have walked free, in large part because of Jefferson County judges and prosecutors who were unafraid to take a second look at how the mistakes of our past are wasting lives and hurting people.  Like Mr. Cruz, Ms. Cooley’s LWOP sentence was for drug trafficking.

Mr. Kennard at his Bessemer home a few months after his release from prison. Photo by Bernard Troncale

Mr. Kennard was my client and I still see him on a regular basis. Within 6 weeks of release, he secured a job at a car dealership. He talks about going to work like it’s the best thing that ever happened to him. Work, family, and church are his priorities.  In fact, Mr. Kennard and Bessemer District Attorney Lynniece Washington attend the same church. And she is fine with that, she once told me. After all, she saw no purpose in opposing Mr. Kennard’s resentencing. He had served 36 years for a $50 robbery.

But there are so many more like them. According to data from the Alabama Sentencing Commission that Judge Wallace included in his order, 22 people in Alabama are serving sentences of Life Without Parole for drug convictions, 255 for robbery – all crimes that require no physical injury for a conviction.  But under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, that does not matter.

More than 100 of these people are over 60 years old. As COVID-19 spreads through the Alabama Department of Corrections, with now 25 confirmed cases among staff and incarcerated people, the potential consequences of these sentencing decisions become more fraught.

We celebrate with Roberto Cruz. And still we search for the ways Alabama’s criminal punishment system will somehow provide justice to the many others like him.

For a full account of Mr. Cruz’s case, please read Kathryn Casteel’s detailed report from the Southern Poverty Law Center.