A man walks into court
The trial of Limestone County, Alabama, Sheriff Mike Blakely
Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely’s truck (note the license plate) parked outside the courthouse on July 12 (weather: partly cloudy, high 86) with his dog inside. Provisions related to animal abuse in Alabama. Photo courtesy of @ashhiron.
On Monday, July 12, jury selection began for the criminal trial of Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely. Blakely is the longest-serving sheriff in Alabama and has been in office for around 40 years. (Blakely was also the subject last year of a state ethics investigation, which found probable cause for criminal charges and forwarded them to the Attorney General’s Office for prosecution.)
Here’s a great description of the sheriff from Al.com, which should suffice for local color:
As an avid horseman, Blakely wears a cowboy hat, boots and shiny belt buckle. Each year, he hosts the Limestone County Sheriff’s Rodeo to raise money. The event website calls it, “The Largest Outdoor Rodeo East of the Mississippi and the Greatest Show on Dirt.”
Most of these charges center around Blakely’s alleged use of his office to take money from his office for gambling, using the labor of those incarcerated at his jail to suck up to some people who might give him money, and using his office to encourage other people to give him “interest-free loans.”
For example, some of the charges are over a trip to a “sheriff’s conference” that Blakely charges to his official account which was actually a gambling trip to Mississippi. (The two are frequently confused.) On that Mississippi trip, Blakely allegedly asked an assistant to write him $1,000 from the Limestone County Sheriff’s Office as a temporary payday loan.
Blakely’s counsel filed a previous motion to exclude the sheriff’s “drinking and gambling” problems. Excluding this evidence would be a big problem because the whole root of the criminal charges is that the sheriff took money from the LCSO account for gambling. (There’s also a weird wrinkle that one of the key witnesses is also being prosecuted.)
Other highlights from Blakely’s trial include the following claims:
The sheriff allegedly received “$250,000 from Tennessee lottery and gaming establishments.”
The sheriff allegedly took money from the LSCO account, the “jail vault “ (e.g. money belonging to people incarcerated at his jail), and his campaign account.
The sheriff co-owns a racehorse with a commissioner.
Allegations of witness intimidation.
The sheriff allegedly gifted the labor of people he incarcerated and gave someone a “reserve deputy badge” that worked as a pistol permit as a way to get an “interest-free loan.” And check out these details from a worker:
One of the men who was incarcerated at the Limestone County Jail when he worked at Higo for two or three months in 2015 testified that he and the other inmates were paid $10 per hour to do renovations at the Higo headquarters in Athens. He told the jury that the sheriff did not get any of their pay. He testified that he and the other inmates were hired to cover the walls of Pullum’s office with lead.
As I’ve written before, the office of sheriff doesn’t just allow for some graft; it encourages it. When the office was first created in America, it was fee-for-service; officials and individuals would pay the sheriff a set fee for serving warrants, keeping people inside the jail, and arresting individuals who were wanted by other agencies. This tradition has never gone away. Sheriffs still charge pay-to-stay fees, the equivalent of “room and board” (allowed by law), they overcharge for commissary and phone calls (also allowed by law), they charge other agencies, including ICE and the U.S. Marshals, to house people, they charge cities for contractual policing services and on and on. One of the reasons why sheriffs have remained in charge of county jails is because they lobbied for it (over the course of decades and decades, when states began to consolidate prison systems) in order to maintain control over money.
Example of a list of fees Michigan sheriffs were entitled to charge. The full list is some 6 pages. The publication is dated 1960.
Sheriffs aren’t the only elected official prone to graft. But they sure do seem like one of the worst culprits from an outside point of view. According to at least one analysis, sheriff misconduct appears to be widespread.
But don’t be fooled — Sheriff Blakely isn’t stepping down from his office nor is he required to. Under Alabama law, sheriffs charged with crimes can still be sheriff — and drive their sheriff vehicles — until they are convicted. The trial is supposed to be three weeks in total, so I supposed the question is…what will jurors need to convict? And can you find jurors willing to convict a sheriff?
Pasco County, Florida, Sheriff Chris Nocco implemented a program in his office that scours social media, arrest histories, and “unspecified intelligence” to create a database of “likely offenders” the office then targets for increased surveillance and, evidently, a meanie letter letting the people know that the sheriff thinks they are bad news. The letter offers recipients “assistance” “to empower [them] to live a lawful, productive and fulfilled life.” Most notably, Nocco’s program was also being used to target young people.
Civil rights organizations protest the program and the letter — which also basically threatens to turn over information to federal and state agencies in addition to targeting the recipient for “services” — and there’s a pending lawsuit.
The idea of targeting some people for enhanced policing isn’t really all that new — it’s the basis of most modern Compstat programs and “precision or predictive policing.” Some anti-violence programs, like the one created by David Kennedy, also focus on individuals as a way to sway others to end retaliation or other violence. (It’s kind of like using Instagram influencers to send a public service message.) The difference with the Pasco County program, so far as I can tell, is that it targets individuals without a rationale. Compstat, as a contrast, targeted neighborhoods, which would then be overpoliced, but it didn’t specify individual targets. But even still, the Brennan Center points out that policing which relies on algorithms will always have some sort of racial bias as well as other flaws on top of questionable constitutionality.
Plus, you know predictive policing is wrong because William Bratton loves it. Enough said.