Failing to pay your water bill should not be a crime

Chickasaw resident Sonya Ayers
Chickasaw resident Sonya Ayers

A city ordinance that criminalized the failure to pay a water bill was repealed by the city council in the town of Chickasaw, Alabama, last night in response to a Southern Poverty Law Center letter advising the city’s municipal judge that the ordinance is unconstitutional.

Chickasaw resident Sonya Ayers, 48, was convicted of a misdemeanor and ultimately jailed last year for more than a day after she was unable to pay her city utility bill.

Her water was turned off and she was ordered by the municipal court to pay more than $400 in fines and fees to the city. She also had to pay monthly supervision fees to Judicial Correction Services, a private, for-profit probation company. Ayers could not keep up with the payments and was arrested after failing to appear at a court hearing that she was not informed about.

“Failing to pay your water bill should not be a crime,” said Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director. “Yet this is exactly what happened in Chickasaw with an unconstitutional ordinance that harshly punished people for their poverty.

“The action by the Chickasaw City Council will ensure that residents will not be prosecuted or face criminal penalties when they simply cannot afford to pay for running water in their homes. It’s a step in the right direction.”

Continue reading

When Defense Lawyers Become Prosecutors

By J. Celso Castro Alves, Truthout | News Analysis

Scales of Justice weigh heavily against Defendants in Alabama

In theory, a public defender’s mission includes dedicated advocacy for clients against whom the power of the carceral state is mobilised. In theory, a public defender’s mission includes dedicated advocacy for clients against whom the power of the carceral state is mobilized. However, in practice, defenders sometimes end up working with the forces of power — and against the best interests of their clients. (Photo: Pixabay)

On January 5, 2015, Randall H. McCants Jr. was not alone when Judge James H. Roberts Jr. of the Sixth Judicial Circuit of the State of Alabama opened his courtroom for a plea hearing. “Mr. McCants is present in court with his attorneys, Jim Gentry and Mike Cartee,” he stated. Besides the judge’s reference to McCants’ court-appointed attorneys by their nicknames, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Roberts cited McCants’ constitutional rights before highlighting his defense attorneys’ central task: “Your attorneys are bound to do everything they can honorably and reasonably do to see that you obtain a fair and impartial trial.” McCants answered the judge’s questions with “yes, sir” and “no, sir.” Even to the charge of capital murder and the question of whether he understood that “the range of punishment is life without parole or death,” McCants responded, “yes, sir.”

According to the nine-page hearing transcript, Roberts knew that McCants had pled not-guilty during his post-arrest arraignment in January 2011. In fact, Roberts acknowledged that McCants’ attorneys had only recently “proposed a plea agreement” for the “lesser offence of murder.” Yet, at no point during the hearing did Roberts wonder about what prompted McCants’ sudden about-face. Did four mysterious years in pretrial detention impact McCants’ decision? Could McCants’ attorneys have coerced him to plead guilty by invoking fear that a greater punishment awaited him at trial? Whether McCants was mentally competent to grasp legal proceedings or understand that he was assuming full responsibility for the accidental death of a Tuscaloosa resident apparently did not cross Roberts’ mind either.

Rather, Judge Roberts proceeded with the plea colloquy by asking prosecutor Jonathan S. Cross to provide “some facts” for the first-degree murder plea. Compliant, Cross stood and delivered some skimpy facts in the most casual and sloppy fashion possible:

Continue reading