On January 31, 2018, a Randolph County sheriff’s deputy showed up at the home of Greg and Teresa Almond in Woodland, Alabama, to serve Greg court papers in a civil matter.
Greg, 50, wasn’t home, but his wife Teresa told the deputy he would be back before long. About two hours later, after Greg had returned home, he heard loud knocking on the door. He remembers shouting “hang on” and walking toward the door when it suddenly flew open. The next thing he knew he was on the floor—ears ringing, dazed, wondering if he’d just been shot.
Several deputies from the Randolph County Sheriff’s Department had kicked in his front door and thrown a flashbang grenade at his feet. The officers handcuffed and detained the couple at gunpoint, then started searching their house. The deputy from earlier had reportedly smelled marijuana, and so a county drug task force was descending on the Almonds’ home, looking for illegal drugs.
“I’m confused, I feel violated, I’m thinking the people who are supposed to serve and protect you basically just threw a bomb in my lap,” Greg recalls.
One may wonder what sort of dangerous criminal enterprise the Almonds were running to warrant such a display of force. The total drug haul for the Randolph County narcotics unit that day: a small amount of marijuana worth $50 or less, which the Almonds’ 27-year-old son later claimed ownership of, and one Lunesta sleeping pill found outside of a prescription bottle with Greg Almond’s name on it.
The Almonds now face misdemeanor charges for 2nd degree possession of marijuana for personal use and possession of drug paraphernalia (a glass pipe). But that’s among the least of their troubles.
The Randolph County Sheriff’s Department also seized thousands of dollars in cash and valuables from the family, through civil asset forfeiture. Greg Almond says that as a result of the raid and seizures, their business was ruined, they lost their house, their reputation was tarnished, and their ability to earn a living has been practically destroyed.
Now the Almonds are suing. A federal civil rights lawsuit filed last month alleges that the Randolph County Sheriff’s Department illegally seized roughly $8,000 in cash and dozens of firearms, some of which were antiques, from two safes. The raid, the couple argues, violated the Constitution’s protections against unreasonable search and seizures as well as their due process rights. Police took the money right out of his wallet, Almond says. According to the lawsuit, his wife’s wedding rings, his guitars, and other valuables were lost, were stolen, or do not appear on the sheriff department’s inventory of seized items.
The Almonds’ allegations against the Randolph County Sheriff’s Department, first reported by Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, exemplify the worst aspects of civil asset forfeiture—the heavy-handed use of a tool meant for major drug traffickers against petty offenders and innocent owners. Cases like these have led Alabama lawmakers to propose reining in the state’s forfeiture laws, which rank among the most aggressive and unchecked in the U.S.
It’s hard to say just how many cases like the Almonds’ are out there. Alabama currently doesn’t have any mandatory transparency or reporting requirements surrounding civil forfeiture. Although the Alabama District Attorneys Association announced earlier this year that it would begin voluntarily collecting data and publishing annual reports on the practice, Carla Crowder, executive director of Appleseed Alabama, says there should be mandatory rules in place.
“Just having the information would allow the public to know the kind of stuff that we found out in our report,” she says. “Are police just taking $1,500 from the homes of people they arrest for marijuana possession, which we documented, or are they truly going after assets that are connected to or the result of criminal activity? Our report shows they’re not.”
A 2018 report by Alabama Appleseed found that state law enforcement raked in roughly $2.2 million through civil asset forfeiture in 2015. The report revealed a widespread lack of transparency, uncovered large racial disparities, and showed that marijuana offenses, like the Almonds’ case, were a major driver of forfeiture actions.
The report highlighted the case of Royce Williams, an Alabama resident who his family says had been growing and using marijuana to manage pain from several surgeries. He wasn’t a drug dealer, they say. But that didn’t matter to local law enforcement, which initiated court proceedings to seize the 40 acres of property that had been in his family for generations.
Prosecutors continued to pursue the property even after Williams’ 2009 suicide—a last-ditch attempt to keep it in his family’s name. Williams’ wife, battling terminal cancer, continued to fight in federal court and ultimately won, but she went deep into debt in the process.
In the 2010 case of Frank Ranelli, the police department in Homewood, Alabama, seized 130 computers from his computer store, acting on a tip that he was selling stolen electronics. The sole charge against Ranelli was eventually dismissed, but he never got the computers back.
“Here I was, a man, owned this business, been coming to work every day like a good old guy for 23 years, and I show up at work that morning—I was in here doing my books from the day before—and the police just fucked my life,” he tells Al.com.
Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property—including cash, cars, and even houses—suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even in cases where no one is charged or convicted of a crime. Law enforcement groups say civil asset forfeiture is a vital tool that allows police to disrupt drug trafficking and other organized crime by targeting their illicit proceeds. But civil liberties groups say it has far too few protections for innocent property owners and too many perverse incentives for police.
Last week, an Alabama senate committee advanced a bill that would require police and prosecutors to obtain a criminal conviction before seized property could be forfeited to the state. Misdemeanor charges, like those levelled against the Almonds, wouldn’t be eligible for forfeiture either.
“I’d like to see it where no one else would have to go through something like this,” Greg Almond says. “It would be one thing if I had been running some kind of drug enterprise or something, but that’s just not the case.”
Following the raid, the Almonds—both of whom had no prior arrest record, according to their lawsuit—were booked overnight and much of the next day in the county jail. Their relatively brief incarceration had an enormous impact on their lives.
In addition to a tombstone engraving business they had inherited, the Almonds were raising chickens. Large poultry companies often contract with independent farmers to raise chickens, but the business, at least for the farmers, is notoriously tough. The companies provide the chicks and feed, but the contract grower has to build the chicken houses, often requiring large loans.
Prior to the raid, the Almonds were in a financially precarious spot. The poultry producer they contracted with required them to change their chicken houses before it would send them any more birds, so they lost an entire year of payments while they were making the upgrades. They had already mortgaged their house and 16 acres of property to start their farm.
The Almonds were in the process of refinancing their loans to try and stay afloat, but the deadline to refinance happened to be the same day they were stuck in jail. As a result of their incarceration, the Almonds missed the deadline. A month later, their bank foreclosed on their house.
The Almonds now live in a utility shed. According to Alabama Appleseed,
Greg insulated the shed, but the Almonds have no running water or indoor plumbing. They cook over an open fire outside their front door and keep food cool in a portable cooler. A small solar panel provides enough electricity to power their television and a floor lamp at night, but they do not have enough power to run an air conditioner. For Christmas, Greg’s boss gave them a wood-burning stove to supplement the propane heater they had been using. Some mornings, Greg wakes up to indoor temperatures in the low 50s.
Meanwhile, Greg Almond says the arrest and initial charges ruined their reputation in town.
“What I’ve been hearing since then is we were meth dealers and meth heads,” he says. “People we had been knowing for years would turn their head when they saw us and wouldn’t speak. It’s gotten where we avoid going to public places. It’s made me—I don’t how to put it in words—it’s made me not want to be out. It’s like people are whispering behind our backs.”
The Almonds’ son tried to go to the police to confess ownership of the marijuana, according to the lawsuit, but the local district attorney continued to pursue prosecution against the couple. On February 22, more than a year after the initial raid, a local grand jury returned an indictment against Greg and Teresa Almond for two misdemeanor charges: unlawful possession of marijuana for personal use and unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia, thus violating “the peace and dignity of Alabama.”
The Almonds attorney in their civil suit, Mike Segrest, says the misdemeanor charges show that the use of civil asset forfeiture, which is supposed to require law enforcement to show a “nexus” between the seized property and criminal activity, was wholly inappropriate. (The Randolph County Sheriff’s Department directed a request for comment to Webb and Ely, a law firm representing the department in the Almond lawsuit. The firm declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.)
“If you got possession of marijuana in the second degree [i.e. for personal use], then how are you going to establish a nexus between that and the money and the guns?” Segrest says. “By definition, any crime involving drugs for personal possession, civil forfeiture shouldn’t even come into play.”
Greg has found work as a handyman. He says he has a constant roaring in one of his ears and vision problems as a result of the flashbang, and his wife constantly worries that the police will show back up to plant evidence on their property, even though she knows it’s irrational. “I don’t think she’ll ever be the same,” he says.
And it’s made him look differently at the local police, many of whom he had known for years prior to the raid.
“It’s made me distrust law enforcement on every level,” he says. “Going down the road I can see a police or state trooper, not that I’m doing anything wrong, and it’s kind of like my adrenaline goes up. My heart just pounds seeing them.”