VALLEY, Ala. (WIAT) — She wanted the police to hurry up and get her into the back of their cruiser.
Police officers had told the mother of three to get out of her car on a roadside near Lanett, Alabama. She knew she hadn’t done anything wrong, she said, but it was the other vehicles passing by that really bothered her.
“It was so embarrassing,” she said. “I just wanted it to be over.”
It wasn’t until days later after the mother had spent a weekend incarcerated in the Chambers County Jail, that she learned she’d been arrested on a warrant issued over her failure to pay a $94 trash bill at her home in Valley, Alabama.
More than a decade later, years after leaving Valley behind, the fines in the woman’s case have ballooned to nearly $700, and the mother of three has found herself one of dozens of Alabamians with active warrants for their arrest related to unpaid garbage fees in the City of Valley.
When she saw the blue lights in her rearview mirror in December 2011, she immediately started going through her mind. Had she been speeding? No, she thought. Was her seatbelt on? Yes, it was. She’d put the chest strap behind her, though. Maybe that, she speculated, was the reason for the stop. It wasn’t.
When the officer approached her car, he got to the point fairly quickly, she said. There was a warrant for her arrest, and she’d be going to jail, he told her. She was stunned.
“I asked him what the warrant was for, and he couldn’t tell me,” she said. “I didn’t find out what I’d been arrested for until after I was released.”
Police brought the woman to Lanett Police Department, and soon, she was transported to the Chambers County Jail in LaFayette, where she’d be forced to spend the weekend.
She said her experience in jail over unpaid garbage fees was traumatizing. She was on her period, she said, and the jail forced her to take off her underwear because they weren’t white.
“I was in an orange jumpsuit with nothing on underneath,” the mother said. “It was traumatic.”
On Monday, once a judge had approved bail for the woman, her aunt arranged for a bondsman to pay for her release. She said she remembers leaving the jail on foot after her release. She didn’t have a vehicle, and her other family members hadn’t yet arrived to pick her up. She couldn’t stay there, though. Her feet wouldn’t let her.
Before long, as she walked away from the Chambers County Jail that December day, her parents pulled up aside her.
“What happened?” She remembered them asking.
“It was really embarrassing,” she said. “That my parents had to come pick up their oldest daughter from jail — thinking she’s a criminal.”
Escaping the Valley
Before long, the mother had moved out of Valley, and — she thought — on with her life.
But again and again, what had happened in Valley continued to come back up. She applied to a state-funded job — a job she’d eventually land — and they approached her about the charge.
“They came to me and said ‘You’ve been arrested for solid waste,'” she recalled. The supervisors at the job, which involves serving children with disabilities, were concerned.
“I had to get a statement sent to the state letting them know that the charge had nothing to do with children,” she said.
Now, more than a decade after her arrest, she said that she’s scheduled to appear in court next week in relation to the same case. She said that after she’d moved from Valley, she was never notified that she owed additional fees related to the case. Those fees, according to court records, have now accumulated to nearly $700. Court records misspell the woman’s name, a mistake that could have led to difficulties in notifying her of compounding fees.
“I just didn’t know,” she explained.
It’s the repeated humiliation, though, that really worries the mother the most. She said she doesn’t know yet whether she will appear in court as scheduled on Monday. Her past experiences in Valley make her hesitant to trust the system again.
“I don’t know what I’ll do,” she said. “I don’t want to go to jail.”
In danger of arrest
The mother is not alone. She is one of dozens of individuals with active warrants for their arrest in relation to unpaid garbage fees in Valley, Alabama, according to state court records. In nearly all of the cases reviewed by CBS 42, trash bills that had initially amounted to around $100 had grown to hundreds in court fees and charges.
The revelation comes more than a month after the controversial arrest of 82-year-old Martha Menefield at her home in Valley for the same alleged “crime.” The city’s police chief defended the arrest at the time, saying his officers’ treated Menefield respectfully.
City officials including Mayor Leonard Riley and Code Enforcement Officer MJ Jones did not respond to requests for comment on this story. In his only interview since news of Menefield’s arrest made national and international headlines, Riley mentioned the 82-year-old in a discussion of alleged city investigations into fraud.
In that interview with a local newspaper, Riley said courts in the county have issued 21 arrest warrants related to trash pickup in just the last two years. 13 of those warrants (62%) were issued for Black residents, he said, and the remaining were for white residents. Black residents make up only about 38 percent of the city’s population.
For her part, the Black mother of three said she felt her treatment was at least in part motivated by race. But she said that nobody — Black, white, or otherwise — should be put in jail over trash.
“I don’t think it should ever be criminal,” she said. “What have I done to hurt someone else? It’s just garbage.”