Six years ago, Greg and Teresa Almond were left destitute and living in a utility shed after sheriff's deputies in Randolph County, Alabama, illegally raided their house and seized their savings over a misdemeanor drug crime.
Now the Almonds will be made partly whole, at least financially. Last month, a jury in their federal civil rights lawsuit awarded the couple $1 million in punitive and compensatory damages after trial testimony showed the deputies never got a warrant to search the Almonds' property.
The Randolph County Sheriff's Department's 2018 raid on the Almonds' house, first reported by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, exemplified the worst aspects of the war on drugs and civil asset forfeiture—a practice that allows police to seize property when it's suspected of being connected to criminal activity.
On January 31, 2018, a Randolph County sheriff's deputy showed up at Greg and Teresa Almond's house in Woodland, Alabama, to serve Greg court papers in a civil matter. The deputy reported that he smelled marijuana.
A county drug task force returned two hours later, busted down the Almonds' front door, threw a flash-bang grenade at Greg Almond's feet, detained the couple at gunpoint, and ransacked their house. The search only turned up $50 or less of marijuana, which the Almonds' adult son tried in vain to claim as his, and a single sleeping pill outside of a prescription bottle with Greg's name on it.
Using the paltry amount of narcotics as justification, deputies seized roughly $8,000 in cash, along with dozens of firearms and other valuables, under Alabama's civil asset forfeiture laws. The deputies took the money right out of his wallet, Greg Almond told Reason in 2019.
More than a year after the initial raid, the Almonds were indicted on two misdemeanor charges: unlawful possession of marijuana for personal use and unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia, thus violating "the peace and dignity of Alabama." However, prosecutors dropped the charges, and a judge ordered their property to be returned.
The Almonds filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2019 alleging that the Randolph County Sheriff's Department used excessive force; stole, lost, or failed to inventory their missing property; and violated their constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as their right to due process.
That was in addition to the other injuries they suffered. As a result of the raid and arrest, the Almonds' missed a crucial deadline to refinance loans on their farm and lost their house. Their reputation was tarnished, and their ability to earn a living was practically destroyed.
What's more, depositions and trial testimony showed that the deputies never obtained an official search warrant from a judge for the raid.
U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker, a Trump appointee, wrote that because of the undisputed testimony, there was no question whether the Almonds' Fourth Amendment rights were violated. They had been, and no reasonable jury could find otherwise. Nor did the deputies' assertions that they had acted in good faith hold any weight.
"There was no warrant, telephonic or written, and thus there was nothing upon which Walker could rely in good faith," Huffaker wrote. "In other words, because Defendant Walker knew that he did not have a warrant at the time of the incident, the good faith exception does not apply."
"And secondly, as a matter of law," Huffaker continued, "given the undisputed facts concerning the non-existence of a warrant, it was objectively unreasonable for an experienced law enforcement officer to believe that he could search an occupied home when no warrant existed, when no judge told him that he had a warrant, when he was merely told that he had enough for a warrant, and when none of the formalities or requirements associated with a telephonic or written warrant were followed."
A 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice found that Alabama law enforcement raked in roughly $2.2 million through civil asset forfeiture in 2015. In a quarter of those cases, no criminal charges were filed. In half of all asset forfeiture cases that year, the amount of cash was $1,372 or less—too little for most people to bother hiring a lawyer to recover.
Cases like these led Alabama lawmakers to add transparency requirements in 2019 to the state's asset forfeiture laws, which ranked among the most aggressive and unchecked in the U.S.
But the Almonds will never look at law enforcement the same way.
"It's made me distrust law enforcement on every level," Greg Almond told Reason in 2019. "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."
The Randolph County Sheriff's Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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