By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on December 3, 2022
An Editorial Opinion
On November 29, 2022, Mike Reynolds, police chief for the City of Valley, Alabama posted this message of the city’s Facebook page:
“On November 27, 2022, officers of the Valley Police Department arrested Martha Louis Menefield, 82 years old of Valley, on the charge of Failure to Pay-Trash. She was processed at the Valley Police Department and then released on bond.
City of Valley Code Enforcement Officers issued Ms. Menefield a citation in August of 2022 for non-payment for trash services for the months of June, July, and August. Prior to issuing the citation, Code Enforcement tried to call Ms. Menefield several times and attempted to contact her in person at her residence. When contact could not be made, a door hanger was left at her residence. The hanger contained information on the reason for the visit and a name and contact phone number for her to call. The citation advised Ms. Menefield that she was to appear in court on September 7, 2022, in reference to this case. A warrant for Failure to Pay-Trash was issued when she did not appear in court.
According to the Environmental Services, Ms. Menefield has had her trash services suspended three times in the past two years for non-payment and records indicate that there have been over twenty-two incidents of suspensions and revocation of services since 2006.
While our officers can use their discretionary judgment on certain matters, the enforcement of an arrest warrant issued by the court and signed by a magistrate, is not one of them. Ms. Menefield was treated respectfully by our officers in the performance of their duties and was released on a bond as prescribed by the violation.”
The arrest of 82-year-old Ms. Menefield for failing to pay her trash bill has ignited a firestorm of criticism against the City of Valley throughout the state and around the nation. Once again, Alabama has been cast in a very negative light in the eyes of the nation.
According to Chief Reynolds’ words, Ms. Menefield was arrested for “Failure to Pay-Trash.” In my words, Ms. Menefield was arrested simply because she failed to pay a $77 trash bill.
Furthermore, Valley City Code Section 58-127 makes the failure to pay the city’s trash bill a misdemeanor offense that is punishable with a fine of not less than $50 and not more than $200. And, each day Ms. Menefield does not pay her trash bill “shall constitute a separate [misdemeanor] offense and shall be punished accordingly.” City Code Section 58-127 also adopts any other sanctions for violations outlined in Code of Ala. 1975, §§ 22-27-6 and 22-27-7, as amended.
Even though the City of Valley had the express power in City Code Section 58-124 to exempt Ms. Menefield from paying her trash bill if her sole source of income was Social Security benefits, Chief Reynolds omitted any mention of this option in his Facebook post. His silence on this subject is deafening.
Making a Career Criminal Out of an 82-Year-Old Elderly Resident
The City of Valley dragged Ms. Menefield into a debtor’s court proceeding that has important, damaging, and long-lasting criminal consequences. Ms. Menefield now has a rap sheet, a mug shot, an appearance bond, a tentative court date, and possibly an entry in the federal government’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. No matter what happens in this unfortunate saga, Ms. Menefield now has a permanent misdemeanor criminal record.
What is worse, Ms. Menefield also falls within the class of people that politicians love to call “criminals.” If she is charged and convicted for each day her trash bill is not paid, she will become a “career criminal” by definition.
Remarkably, no city, county, or state official has stepped forward to stop this gross mistreatment of Ms. Menefield and the City of Valley’s abuse of the criminal justice system in her case.
The local criminal justice system in Valley cannot be used to collect the municipality’s trash bills. This debt collection practice was banned by Congress in 1833 and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983.
The City of Valley Found a Way to Circumvent the Law and Gaslight the Public
Despite these bans, the City of Valley found a nefarious way to circumvent them. The city requested a local judge to issue an arrest warrant for Ms. Menefield for failing to pay her trash bill, as authorized in City Code Section 58-127. This is why the warrant says, “Failure to Pay-Trash.”
However, Chief Reynolds’ posted message states that Ms. Menefield was arrested for missing her court date. This statement is a deliberate attempt to gaslight the public in light of the fact that City Code Section 58-127 is likely unenforceable under the Supreme Court's ban against using the criminal justice system to collect municipal debts.
The bottom-line is this: The City of Valley is using its municipal court system to run a debtor’s court operation. Lawyers call this scheme “cash-register justice,” and is a fairly common practice in Alabama cities.
Alabama is a relatively poor state. The median income is $27,212. Among the nation’s 50 states, Alabama ranks 45th in health care, 47th in education, 43rd in crime and corrections, and 46th in overall quality of life factors. As a result of these factors, state and local court systems in Alabama are under incredible pressure to become and stay financially self-sufficient.
There is Hope in Ms. Menefield's Case
All hope is not lost in Ms. Menefield’s case. I have an ongoing journalistic investigation into whether the City of Valley's police department or municipal court officials entered Ms. Menefield’s arrest information into the federal NCIC database. They most likely did so after her arrest on November 27, 2022.
If so, the City of Valley unwittingly sucked the federal government into its “cash-register justice” scheme. The act of inputting Ms. Menefield’s arrest information into the NCIC database gives the U.S. Department of Justice jurisdiction in Washington the power and authority to: (a) investigate whether this was an illegal use of the federal government’s criminal database, and (b) prosecute this abuse of the NCIC system, if warranted.
The NCIC system has been abused in Alabama in the past. In 2006, former Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Woodward and his attorney (Albert Jordan) were convicted on federal conspiracy charges of illegally using the NCIC database for inappropriate purposes. Their convictions were upheld on appeal.