Charges dropped: Valley resident arrested for failure to pay trash bill

Published 8:00 am Saturday, March 11, 2023

Charges against Valley resident Nortasha Jackson for failure to pay an $85 trash fee were dropped for being unlawful on Feb. 22 in Chambers County District Court.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that works against racial injustice, argued that the charge was unlawful because the state code the city cited doesn’t criminalize failure to pay.

“What happened was unlawful. It was unconstitutional,” said SPLC Senior Staff Attorney Micah West. 

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Jackson relies on disability payments to pay her bills. After falling behind in payments for May, June and July, Jackson was summoned to a court appearance. The city issued an arrest warrant in August, and she was arrested in November. 

When the police came to the door, Jackson wasn’t expecting to be arrested over a trash bill. 

“The arrest part was embarrassing because I don’t get in trouble, not like that,” Jackson said. 

West represented Jackson during her case. The organization reached out to her shortly after a similar case made national news. Martha Menefield, an 82-year-old Valley resident, was arrested for a $77 trash bill.

“They contacted me, which I’m grateful for because if it wasn’t for them I don’t know where I would be,” Jackson said.

According to West, the state code is generally enforced in one of two ways: suspending trash service or pursuing a civil case. 

“The Alabama and federal constitutions prohibit punishing citizens for not being able to pay … The city didn’t have to take the most extreme action,” West said.

In December, Code Enforcement Officer MJ Jones told the Valley Times-News the procedure for handling unpaid trash bills in Valley has been to make several warning calls to the individual. After three months with no response, the city mails them a summons to appear in court. If the citizen doesn’t show up in court, the code enforcement officer will try to contact them one more time before signing a warrant for their arrest. 

According to West, the warrant treats the violation as a criminal offense, which is not constitutional.

“That’s not lawful, but that’s what happened to Ms. Jackson,” West said. 

A city employee did leave a warning slip on Jackson’s door when he came to take her trashcan away. When she confronted him, she claims he told her if she kept talking he would arrest her right away.

West said that the cases of arrests and jailing for this violation in Valley disproportionately impact Black citizens, particularly Black women. Jackson added that the impact also focuses on people of a lower economic class.

“It didn’t have to be that way. There are exemptions for citizens on social security like Ms. Jackson,” West said.

The city of Valley provides reduction of prices for senior citizens and exemptions to those whose sole source of income is social security benefits. Jackson said that she knew about the program, but she didn’t have the transportation to obtain documentation from her doctor in time.

“You never know what a person’s going through,” she said.

Jackson suggested the city make it more clear that there are programs in place. She said some citizens may have dementia or other memory-loss afflictions that make it hard to keep up with payments.

I’m kind of glad it happened to me because it might’ve happened to someone who couldn’t handle the pressure of it,” Jackson said. “And it could’ve been a whole lot worse.”