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Drug trafficking defendants sue county officials: Sheriff responds

CULLMAN - A group of Cullman County drug trafficking defendants have filed a class action civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court against an array of county officials, claiming that the county’s standard $1 million property bond for drug trafficking is excessive and unconstitutional.  The complaint was filed by defendants Randall Parris, Shawn Smelser, Gorman Max Culwell, Jr., Rose Meeks, Colin Scott, Nicholas Moody, Christy Burks and Misti Anderson on behalf of “themselves and a class of similarly situated individuals,” according to court documents.

The complaint names the following county officials and agencies as defendants:

  • Circuit Judge Martha Williams
  • Magistrate Joan White
  • Magistrate Amy Black
  • Circuit Clerk Lisa McSwain
  • County Commissioners Kenneth Walker, Kerry Watson and Garry Marchman
  • Cullman County Sheriff’s Office
  • Sheriff Matt Gentry
  • Alabama Administrative Office of the Court (AOC)
  • AOC Director Randy Helms

The complaint begins, “This case is about the 32nd Judicial Systems [sic.] post-arrest detention scheme to imprison some of Cullman Counties [sic.] poorest residents without the benefit of reasonable bail.”

It goes on to explain the plaintiffs’ position that a drug defendant’s initial arrest outcome is determined by his or her wealth status, saying that, “Wealthy arrestees purchase their freedom by paying an arbitrary amount set by a magistrate relying upon a bail schedule and a policy adopted by the office of the clerk.  Poor arrestees simply remain stuck behind bars because they cannot afford to post the required amount of bail.”

According to the plaintiffs, the standard across-the-board amount of $1 million fails to account for the individual circumstances of each drug defendant.  This, they say, violates the reasonable bail requirements of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, and the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The complaint also alleges that these bonds are set as cash-only bonds “to (e)nsure the continued imprisonment of alleged offenders in violation of the Presumption of Innocence.”

Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry was the first to speak to The Tribune in response to the suit, saying, “My first reaction is this: we’re going to do everything within the law to keep people in jail that are a menace to society.  If you’re going to traffic drugs in our community, then we’re going to do everything we can within the law. There is a set bond schedule by the law. We’re going to do everything within that bond schedule to keep you in jail. 

“If you’re a sex offender or a drug trafficker, or if you’re out breaking into houses, I don’t want you on the street.  I want you in jail.  I don’t want you out causing havoc in our community.  So we’re going to do everything within the law to protect our citizens here in Cullman County.

“You have people who can sue for anything, but I have no problem getting up in any court and explaining what we do and why we do it, when we operate within the law.  So, if some liberal lawyer with a bunch of inmates wants to sue me because we’re doing everything within the law to keep people in jail and keep them from hurting our community, then sue me.  But I know the law, and I’m going to do everything within the law to keep those criminals off the streets.  I’ll never apologize for that.”

The bail schedule mentioned by Gentry reads as follows:

Felonies

Capital felony $50,000 to No Bail Allowed

Murder $15,000 to $ 150,000

Class A felony $10,000 to $ 60,000

Class B felony $ 5,000 to $ 30,000

Class C felony $ 2,500 to $ 15,000

Drug manufacturing and trafficking $ 5,000 to $1,500,000

Class D felony $1,000 to $ 10,000

Misdemeanors (not included elsewhere in the schedule)

Class A misdemeanor $ 300 to $ 6,000

Class B misdemeanor $ 300* to $ 3,000

Class C misdemeanor $ 300 to $ 1,000

Violation $ 300 to $ 500

Municipal Ordinance Violations $ 300 to $ 1,000

Traffic-Related Offenses

DUI $ 1,000 to $ 7,500

Reckless driving $ 300 to $ 1,000

Speeding $ 300 to $ 500

Other traffic violations $ 300 to $ 500

Magistrates set amounts within this schedule, while judges have the discretion to set amounts above or below the established ranges.

Several statistics are commonly cited for the extremely high amount set for drug trafficking:

  • On average, more than 30 percent of defendants who are released while awaiting trial on drug charges will commit another similar offense before they go to trial.
  • Almost one in four federal drug defendants fail to show at scheduled court appearances.
  • Released drug defendants have the highest re-arrest rate of any defendant category.

Almost one-third of persons arrested for drug-related offenses will commit the same or a similar offense while awaiting trial.  The commission of a second crime while out on bail can lead to the right to bail being revoked, and may possibly result in bail paid or pledged being forfeited to the court. Therefore, high bail amounts for drug cases not only increase the chances of defendants showing up for court, they also encourage those most likely to repeat their offense to obey the law while they wait.

See our related stories on bond amounts at http://qrne.ws/bonds1 and http://qrne.ws/bonds2.

The county officials and agencies involved are being represented by Laura Howell and Jim Davis of the Alabama State Attorney General’s Office in Montgomery.  According to Press Secretary Mike Lewis, the AG’s office was not offering comment on the case at the time of writing.

The plaintiffs are being represented by local attorney Thomas Drake II.

Image: Cullman County Sheriff's Office

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