In east Alabama, criminal cases over garbage linger
A sign outside the City of Lanett’s Municipal Complex, seen on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023 in Lanett, Ala. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)
Alex Holloway said he gets nervous to leave the house.
For nearly three years, Holloway has had a pending criminal case against him in Chambers County, Alabama, over trash.
Holloway is not the first person in the county in fear over garbage. Last year, Valley, Alabama, police handcuffed and arrested 82-year-old Martha Menefield over failure to pay a $77 garbage bill.
Soon after, media and advocacy organizations documented dozens of similar cases – situations where local officials had used the criminal justice system to prosecute citizens into compliance with garbage policy. Some residents filed suit, and others, aided by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, reached out to the county’s newly elected district attorney about the issue.
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In July, Mike Segrest, the district attorney of the Fifth Judicial Circuit, which includes the area, responded, saying his office would no longer prosecute residents over nonpayment of garbage bills.
Despite that pledge, weeks later, multiple criminal cases over failure to participate in the county’s solid waste program – including Holloway’s – have not yet been dismissed, leaving some citizens in fear of arrest.
The cases, which involve charges that residents never participated in the county garbage program at all, differ somewhat from the cases that garnered headlines over the past year, which alleged nonpayment of bills after trash service had already begun. The cases also stem from residences in the City of Lanett, not the neighboring City of Valley, where much of last year’s media attention had focused.
‘They harassed me over a trash can’
Holloway, 26, said he was in his yard loading a washer and dryer onto a truck for a family member in October 2020 when police arrived to arrest him over the garbage charge. He remained in jail for about a week before he was able to bond out, he said.
He believes that, like the cases in Valley, the charge against him should be dropped.
“I never know when police are going to find another reason to arrest me,” he said. “They harassed me over a trash can ‘til they finally got me over it, and I was pretty messed up in the head because I had to sit in jail over it.”
His partner, Ashley Williams, said that the arrest has affected the way they view police.
“Police in Lanett and Valley are trash,” she said. “If I was dying, I wouldn’t call them.”
Holloway pled guilty to the misdemeanor in June 2021 but has not yet paid the nearly $600 in fines assessed as part of the garbage case.
Williams said she believes the arrest changed her partner.
“They have traumatized him, honestly,” she said. “Anytime either one of us sees the police, we get scared because we know all they do is try to harass and arrest people on anything literally. We wouldn’t put it past any of the police in Lanett or Valley.”
Holloway isn’t alone in Lanett, either.
Rydell Broughton has a pending criminal case over failure to participate in the solid waste program, too.
He said in a 2022 interview that arrests over garbage policy “make no sense.”
“Arrested for what?” He asked. “Garbage service should be free.”
Broughton, like Holloway, has hundreds of dollars in fines pending against him in criminal court over a garbage account he never set up, according to court records. Alabama Reflector was unable to reach Broughton for a follow-up interview.
DA Mike Segrest said Thursday he hadn’t been made aware of the pending cases in Lanett until contacted by Alabama Reflector.
“If the individuals contact my office in Lafayette we will be glad to look into it,” he said. “We have been dismissing the Valley cases as they come up on the docket. I’m not sure if there are any still pending.”
But Segrest said that he believes authorities do have the ability to force citizens into participating in a solid waste program.
“I do believe that cities and municipalities have a right to require citizens to participate in solid waste removal program, just as cities have a right to require running water and electricity at a house for it to be considered habitable,” Segrest said. “I do not believe it is constitutional to impose criminal liability for failure to pay. There are civil remedies available to address the issue.”
The plain language of Alabama law allows counties to force residents’ participation in a solid waste program and collect fees for the service, but some lawyers have argued that other, constitutional principles may weigh into the legal equation, too.
Former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley is part of the legal team representing individuals arrested over unpaid garbage fees in Valley, Alabama. The residents are suing both the city and AmWaste, the company contracted to collect residents’ garbage, in federal court.
In a court hearing on the case on July 30, Baxley argued that Alabama’s constitutional prohibition on debtors’ prisons may limit the ways in which authorities can proceed criminally against defendants in cases over trash. Section 20 of the Alabama Constitution states “that no person shall be imprisoned for debt,” he pointed out.
“What’s being done here is a substantial violation of constitutional rights,” Baxley told the judge.
Micah West, a senior attorney with the SPLC Economic Justice Project, said Friday that while state law may allow a court action over failure to participate in a garbage program, constitutional protections reaffirmed in case law prohibit criminal punishment over an inability to pay a bill.
“There are court cases that say you can’t punish someone who can’t afford to pay for the connection [to a service],” he said. “Because then you’re simply punishing someone for their poverty, something that’s not within their control.”
Ashley Williams said that jailing people over not having a trash can is absurd. Holloway, she said, was unaware of the county’s solid waste law until he was arrested. The practice, Williams said, shouldn’t be legal.
“I think it’s ridiculous. No one should have fear of the police taking them to jail over a trash can,” she said. “No one’s freedom should be taken away over a trash can.”
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