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Charlotte District Attorney Says He Won’t Stop Prosecuting Panhandlers

A judge’s decision could end the practice of jailing people for soliciting money along streets and highways, but DA Spencer Merriweather has been slow to embrace the change.

Photo Illustration by Anagraph / Photo by Jan Tong/Getty

Charlotte District Attorney Says He Won’t Stop Prosecuting Panhandlers

A judge’s decision could end the practice of jailing people for soliciting money along streets and highways, but DA Spencer Merriweather has been slow to embrace the change.

For those in the path of Hurricane Florence, the end of the storm meant going home if they and their houses survived. Not so for many in emergency storm shelters in Charlotte, North Carolina. Eighty percent of those who showed up there were homeless, estimates Deronda Metz, social services director for the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope homeless shelter.

Metz, who has worked with homeless people for 30 years, said she asked one visitor, who was staying at the shelter with three children and her mother, where she and her family would go when the shelter closed. “I guess I’ll just sit here until the sun goes down and the sun comes up in the morning,” she told Metz.

As local news stories document, many homeless people in Charlotte rely on panhandling to get by. A report by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute found that for 13 percent of people interviewed who were homeless on a given night in January 2017, panhandling was their main source of income.

Historically, city dwellers have been forbidden by local law from panhandling on the shoulders or sides of roads and highways. Violators can be charged with misdemeanors and are regularly arrested and prosecuted. But that law is now in question.

On Aug. 29, District Court Judge Kim Best ruled that it violates First Amendment protection by “specifically targeting a message conveyed ‘for the purposes of soliciting contributions.’” Elizabeth Frawley, an assistant public defender who brought the case, says the rule is applied only to poor people asking for money and not to, say, volunteers waving signs for political campaigns or kids advertising car washes or selling Girl Scout cookies.

“What we’re saying is there’s a certain type of speech we just don’t want to hear because we don’t like it or it makes us feel uncomfortable,” Frawley told The Appeal.

Yet despite the ruling, it’s unclear whether enforcement of the law will change. That’s because the local district attorney, Spencer Merriweather, a Democrat, hasn’t committed to ending the prosecutions.

If the act of being there is what’s unsafe, then why does [the ordinance] care if I'm asking for contributions versus holding a sign?Elizabeth Frawley, assistant public defender

Merriweather says his office won’t appeal the ruling but will continue to prosecute violations on a case-by-case basis. He told The Appeal that the rule is a public safety provision and cited two cases last year in which people panhandling in or near roads were killed by cars. “Arresting people simply for asking people for money isn’t what anyone wants to do and certainly isn’t what I want the district attorney’s office to do,” he said. But making sure that people in need don’t get hit by cars, he added, “is something worth enforcing the law on.”

He doesn’t read the judge’s order as a blanket prohibition but as a challenge to his office to present better evidence the next time the case comes to court.

Frawley rejects that reading, calling the case a facial challenge. “The text as it is written, regardless of the facts, was found to be unconstitutional,” she told The Appeal. She also finds the safety argument specious. “If the act of being there is what’s unsafe, then why does [the ordinance] care if I’m asking for contributions versus holding a sign?” She’s assessing whether to try to stop further arrests through collateral estoppel, a common-law doctrine that protects criminal defendants from being tried for the same issue in more than one criminal trial.

The first African American to hold the job, Merriweather was appointed in November after departing Republican DA Andrew Murray recommended him as interim replacement. (Murray was appointed a U.S. attorney by Donald Trump, and Merriweather had been a homicide prosecutor in the DA’s office.)

Three months into the new role, Merriweather made a move that cheered advocates for the poor: He eliminated a down payment requirement to participate in a program offering deferred prosecution to first-time, nonviolent offenders in exchange for restitution, opening it up to those who couldn’t afford the initial payment.

In May, Merriweather faced a challenger in the special election to choose a permanent DA: Toussaint Romain, an assistant public defender who was a leader and peacekeeper during the protests over the 2016 police shooting of Keith Scott. In that race, which the Charlotte Observer called perhaps the county’s “most competitive race ever for district attorney,” Merriweather was criticized for being part of the office that declined to prosecute the officer who killed Scott. Both candidates ran on promises to reform the DA’s office.

Merriweather won in a landslide, pulling almost 80 percent of the vote.

I think it’s punishing our most vulnerable brothers and sisters because they’re publicly seeking help.Rabbi Judith Schindler, Queens University

Rabbi Judith Schindler, a prominent local advocate who met with the DA about revising the deferred prosecution program, is concerned that Merriweather is dragging his feet on the change. “It’s surprising to me that the DA would continue on this path,” said Schindler, who also directs a center for peace and justice studies at Charlotte’s Queens University. “I think it’s punishing our most vulnerable brothers and sisters because they’re publicly seeking help, and if we don’t approve of how they’re seeking help … that says more about us than about them.”

A second Charlotte ordinance, not covered by Best’s ruling, forbids panhandling under other circumstances—for example, “by accosting another” or begging near banks and restaurants or after dark. Since Merriweather took office on November 27, Charlotte police have made 86 arrests and issued 192 citations for panhandling under the two ordinances, according to data from the police department.

But Merriweather defends his use of the second ordinance as well. “In each and every case, I’ve got to make—and I would ask my prosecutors to make—the most just call they can,” he told The Appeal. “I can tell you that there have been a number of times where in fact we decided we’re not going to proceed on those cases.”

Metz says in any instance, the arrests are unfair. “We’ve got to come up with something else,” she said. “Arresting people that are already overwhelmed, at the bottom of the society, I think that is criminal.”

Is Orange County D.A. Candidate Sending Mixed Signals on Jail Phone Company’s Contract?

Todd Spitzer blasted Global Tel Link for recording attorney-client phone calls, but his campaign won’t call on a PAC supporting his candidacy to return the company’s lobbyist’s donation.

Orange County supervisor Todd Spitzer, who is running for district attorney.

Is Orange County D.A. Candidate Sending Mixed Signals on Jail Phone Company’s Contract?

Todd Spitzer blasted Global Tel Link for recording attorney-client phone calls, but his campaign won’t call on a PAC supporting his candidacy to return the company’s lobbyist’s donation.

In July, Global Tel Link, the jail phone contractor for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in California, disclosed that it had recorded over a thousand attorney-client phone calls between 2015 and 2018. These calls are supposed to be private to ensure that defendants have full access to the legal counsel guaranteed to them by the Sixth Amendment. In California, secretly listening in on these calls is a felony, yet over a dozen sheriff’s department employees reportedly did so. Orange County public defenders alleged that the company and the sheriff’s department knew about the recordings and have engaged in a cover-up.

In the wake of the scandal, Todd Spitzer, an Orange County supervisor and candidate for district attorney, called on the county to rescind its contract with Global Tel Link (GTL). “Spitzer Calls for Termination of Jail Phone Vendor after Eavesdropping Occurs,” his press release was titled. “Spitzer Doesn’t Buy ‘Human Error’ Excuse,” it proclaimed.

But roughly a month later, a PAC supporting Spitzer’s candidacy received a $5,000 donation from Townsend Public Affairs Inc., a lobbying firm that represents GTL.

While the donation went to an independent PAC rather than the campaign itself, at least one good-government expert questioned the PAC’s decision to accept a donation linked to a company whose contract its candidate presides over as supervisor. If Spitzer were to win the Orange County district attorney’s race next month, he could also choose to investigate GTL’s role in the improper recordings.

“People get that PACs organized to support candidates probably know what candidates want, and donors know that donating to them will get noticed,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen. If Spitzer’s team wants to be as “squeaky clean as possible,” she said, it would publicly call on the PAC to return the money.

John Thomas, a chief strategist for Spitzer, vehemently denied that the contribution to the PAC could pose any conflict of interest and declined to publicly call on the PAC to return the money. The campaign follows the rules, Thomas said in a phone call, and thus “has absolutely no connection” to the PAC, known as the Crime Survivors PAC Supporting Spitzer for District Attorney 2018. He also questioned whether the lobbying firm’s contribution was even connected to GTL, noting that the firm has many other clients.

But this isn’t the first time that Spitzer was linked to a questionable donation involving GTL. A few years ago, the Voice of OC reported that Spitzer and another supervisor, Shawn Nelson, suddenly tempered their criticisms of GTL’s costly prisoner phone calls after receiving campaign donations from GTL. According to that report, in 2014, GTL donated $1,900, the maximum possible, to Spitzer’s and Nelson’s reelection campaigns for supervisor.

Asked about these past donations, Thomas, told The Appeal, “No political contribution has ever, nor will it ever, affect Todd Spitzer’s policy-making decisions.”

In an email, GTL spokesperson James Lee declined to comment on its past direct contributions to Spitzer, and said that Townsend Public Affairs “has been active in Orange County campaigns long before GTL ever became a client.” Christopher Townsend did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the potential conflict of interest posed by the campaign cash.

Damian Fussel, campaign manager for Spitzer’s opponent, incumbent DA Tony Rackauckas, blasted the Spitzer campaign’s “mealy-mouthed” response on the PAC contribution and said the money should be given back immediately. “Todd continues to double deal with Global Tech Link by saying negative things about them in public yet slyly pocketing their money,” Fussel said.

He noted that in August, Rackauckas’s campaign had immediately returned $2,000 that Townsend Public Affairs tried to donate on Aug. 23.

Global Tel Link is not the only company to be caught up in controversy over the recording of attorney-client phone calls. In 2015, The Intercept obtained a massive trove of prisoner phone calls, leaked by a hacker who felt that the prison phone company Securus was violating prisoners’ rights. In the data dump, The Intercept identified what appeared to be at least 14,000 recordings of conversations between prisoners and attorneys, suggesting that privileged information was being improperly recorded on a large scale.

A 1978 appeals court decision, United States v. Levy, held that “free two-way communication between client and attorney is essential” for the professional assistance guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment’s right to an attorney clause “to be meaningful.”

But not all prosecutors choose to respect this interpretation of the Sixth Amendment. In Orleans Parish, Louisiana, for example, the office of District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has listened in on attorney-client jail calls for years. In 2017, Cannizzaro’s office allowed defense attorneys to register landline phone numbers, whose calls are not to be recorded, but continues to allow the recording of cell phone calls made by attorneys.  Such practices have pushed some defense attorneys there to stop communicating with clients on the phone altogether, forcing them to rely on in-person visits to prisoners, which take more time.

On Tuesday, Orange County’s Board of Supervisors will hold a meeting to discuss the future of Global Tel Link’s contract. An Orange County supervisor, who requested anonymity citing fears of professional reprisal, questioned the seeming discrepancies between Spitzer’s public rhetoric and the framing of his office’s agenda items on the issue, which seem to leave open the possibility of the company staying on. “It is odd that he was adamant about terminating the contract at first,” the supervisor noted, “yet now he’s put language with wiggle room to renegotiate.”

Asked why Spitzer seems to have softened on his call for contract termination since his original press release, Thomas said the press release was simply “calling for a deeper look at the situation.”

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The community and care that people in prison offer one another

The community and care that people in prison offer one another

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Community behind the prison walls

  • At Angola Prison, ‘People are suffering. People are dying’

  • Cash bail yields a new casualty

  • Nearly 3,000 people were evacuated from Florida prisons

  • Dangerous and illegal drug raids by Little Rock, Arkansas, police

  • Canadian pension fund’s investment in US private prison companies keeps growing

  • Autopsy of man killed by Nashville police shows shots to back and back of head

In the Spotlight

The community and care that people in prison offer one another

Before a temporary reprieve postponed his execution date by a few weeks, Ed Zagorski was scheduled to be put to death in Tennessee last Thursday. In the days leading up to that original execution date, before the reprieve was issued, Zagorski had busied himself sending messages to people who had helped him over the years. Because he cannot write, he dictated notes. He also, through a minister, conveyed a message for his fellow residents of death row. He had decided not to request the customary final meal. The reason, the Nashville Scene reported, was that the weekend before Zagorski was moved to death watch,  “more than a dozen of the men on death row pulled together whatever ingredients they could get their hands on and made pizzas to share in a last supper of sorts with [him].” The minister told the Scene: “That meant the world to him. He said, ‘that was my last meal.’” [Steven Hale / Nashville Scene]

Those of us who live outside prison walls are, almost by definition and certainly by design, cut off from what goes on inside them. Our system of mass arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment depends on the dehumanization of the people subjected to it. Yet this story about Zagorski, about the generosity and fellowship of men who live with death hanging over them, reminds us that death row and prison are, in this respect, like everywhere else—full of people creating community, offering care, and finding meaning under the most difficult of circumstances.

Anthony Graves, who spent 12 years on Texas’s death row, wrote of the fellowship that welcomed him when he got there. “[D]eath row inmates were a hospitable sort, I’d come to find,” he wrote. “They had exclusive knowledge of the terror I’d be facing in those first few weeks [and] would often send bags to newcomers, a collective housewarming gift.” Because they knew that a new arrival would have no money in their commissary account for a while, people would pool their money to buy “pens, paper, soap, stamps, and those damn shower shoes” for someone who had just arrived. In Graves’s case, the brown paper bag he received from the man locked in the cell below his actually contained a book—the autobiography of Angela Davis.  [Anthony Graves / Literary Hub]

On Alabama’s death row, Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 28 years there, eventually started a book club. As he and six others sat together in a locked room for their first meeting, he wrote, “[w]e weren’t the scum of the earth, the lowest of the low, the forgotten and abandoned men who were sitting in a dark corner of hell waiting for their turn to walk to the electric chair.” A discussion of James Baldwin led to talk of the sins of their fathers and then led to “five black men in the South trying to comfort the white man who would forever be known for doing the last lynching of a black boy.”

Hinton makes a promise to the others that day: “Someday, when I get out of here, you know what I’m going to do?”

“What you going to do, Ray?”

“I’m going to tell the world about how there was men in here that mattered. That cared about each other and the world. That were learning how to look at things differently.”

[Anthony Ray Hinton / Longreads]

In the 1980’s and 90’s, as the AIDS-related death toll mounted, people incarcerated in New York prisons created educational programs to combat the fear and stigma around them. Donna Hylton, who was incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in those years, told Victoria Law: “We let people know that it was okay to take care of a person with AIDS.” Mujahid Farid and David Gilbert received permission from prison officials to visit people who were in solitary confinement because of their HIV status. They “walked the track with others in the prison’s yard, sending the message that these men were protected.”  [The Body / Victoria Law]

Incarcerated people are on staff at the California Medical Unit, the state’s only licensed hospice inside a prison. As the casualties of the mass incarceration epidemic age, the hospice serves an increasingly elderly population. It is, in one patient’s language, another “death row.” The staff earns 15 to 32 cents an hour. Yet one hospice worker “keeps looking for small ways to make patients smile and … spends his wages on ice-cream cones and vending-machine snacks to pass around.” Workers “brush patients’ teeth, massage sore limbs, read books out loud, strip soiled mattresses and assist the medical staff.” And: “When patients are in their final hours, it is the workers who sit bedside, holding round-the-clock vigils. They pride themselves on their policy: No prisoner here dies alone.” [Suleika Jaouad / New York Times Magazine]

This month, Darnell Epps, a student at Cornell University, wrote of the guidance and support he received when he was in prison. He says that he and his brother, who is part of a program at Columbia University, are often treated as exceptional, emerging from prison unscathed. The truth, he writes, is that “[i]n prison, we shined because of, not despite, our circumstances, especially the presence of the ‘old-timers’ who helped guide us to our coming-of-age. We owe them tremendous credit.” But the “50-, 75- and 100-year minimum sentences” many of these men are serving mean that their contributions are confined within the prison walls. “When I hear of all the gun violence on Chicago’s South Side, for instance,” Epps writes, “I can’t help wondering what would happen if Illinois’s many reformed old-timers, who hail from those neighborhoods, were granted parole with a mission of working to reduce the violence.” People in prison who have so much to offer should be out instead, so that “there can be more stories like mine and Darryl’s, and fewer young people making the mistakes that get them sent to prison in the first place.” [Darnell Epps / New York Times]

Stories From The Appeal

msppmoore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Angola Prison, ‘People Are Suffering. People Are Dying.’ Trial begins in class action suit alleging medical neglect by Louisiana State Penitentiary. [Jessica Pishko]

Cash Bail Yields a New Casualty. A Texas jail suicide involving a woman who couldn’t make bail in a shoplifting case highlights of the plight of pretrial detainees with mental illness. [Lauren Gill]

Stories From Around the Country

Nearly 3,000 people were evacuated from Florida prisons: The Florida Department of Corrections confirmed Sunday that it evacuated nearly 3,000 incarcerated people from Panhandle prisons that suffered damage from Hurricane Michael. In the days before the hurricane hit, the department responded to calls for evacuations by saying that prisons were prepared to weather the storm. But in yesterday’s update it reported that one facility—Gulf Correctional—”sustained a direct hit from the storm,” according to the Miami Herald, and four prisons in total are closed “until further damage assessment can be completed.” The corrections department insists that “all inmates … had access to food and drinking water through the duration of the storm” but families of people in prisons affected by the storm report that the message at those facilities was quite different: Anyone drinking the tap water did so “at their own risk.” [Ben Conarck / Miami Herald]

Dangerous and illegal drug raids by Little Rock, Arkansas, police: One day last summer, 11 heavily armed police officers used explosives to blow off Roderick Talley’s door just before 6:30 a.m. in Little Rock, Arkansas. The officers were executing a warrant based on an informant’s statements that he had bought cocaine from Talley but a search of Talley’s apartment turned up no cocaine, only a small amount of marijuana. Radley Balko of the Washington Post interviewed Talley and nine other people who were the subjects of raids and reviewed 109 search warrants. Balko describes Talley’s case in detail and also concludes that Little Rock Police Department “narcotics cops and SWAT teams are routinely violating the Fourth Amendment rights of Little Rock residents.” The three main areas of concern are that police are requesting, and judges are signing, no-knock warrants without demonstrating the need for no-knock entry; the LRPD is serving warrants by using inappropriate and dangerous explosives on doors, including in two cases when children were reportedly in the home; and there is clear evidence that one informant has lied to police about his drug buys. [Radley Balko / Washington Post]

Canadian pension fund’s investment in US private prison companies keeps growing:  Between August 2017 and August 2018, a Canadian investment fund that manages the pension funds for roughly 20 million Canadian retirees grew its holdings in the two biggest U.S. private prison companies. Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) increased its investment in GEO Group almost thirteen-fold, according to the latest Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The increased investment was despite criticisms from Canadian politicians about the Trump administration’s immigration detention policies. CPPIB has said that the investments in the private prison companies represent only a tiny proportion of their fund and were not direct investments. However, some Canadian lawmakers have expressed concerns since the report came out. One told The Guardian: “Canadian taxpayers should not be inadvertently complicit in feeding the development of privatized for-profit prisons.” CPPIB is state-owned and ultimately answerable to the Canadian parliament. [Max Siegelbaum / Documented and Guardian US]

Autopsy of man killed by Nashville police shows shots to back and back of head: A medical examiner’s autopsy report shows that Daniel Hambrick died from “multiple gunshot wounds to his back and the back of his head,” according to The Tennessean. Metro Nashville Police Officer Andrew Delke shot Hambrick as Hambrick was running away from him. Delke was charged with criminal homicide last month, “an almost unprecedented move in Nashville’s history,” and one that went forward only after a judge reversed a magistrate’s unusual decision not to charge. The police department is now reviewing its foot pursuit policy, and the Nov. 6 ballot includes a referendum on the creation of a community oversight board for the department. [Mariah Timms / The Tennessean]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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