My son Ivan needs your help to fight an injustice in Heflin (Cleburne County), Alabama (http://censusviewer.com/city/AL/Heflin).
His saga began on February 7, 2013, as he and two female coworkers traveled through this small Alabama town selling Valentine's Day novelty items. By sunset, all three had been arrested and charged with possession of "a small amount of green plant material" that police found in the pocket of the passenger door. Ivan's coworkers were charged with a misdemeanor offense, but because Ivan had a six-year old prior misdemeanor conviction, he was charged with a felony.
The State has no evidence that Ivan knew about the "green plant material" or that he was in any way connected to it. Ivan did not own the car, and he did not drive it that day. None of the personal items the police found in the pocket belonged to him. Despite knowing all of this, the Assistant District Attorneys have focused their attention and prosecutorial efforts on Ivan almost exclusively.
To make matters worse, Ivan's court-appointed attorney treated him more like an enemy than a client, berating him and belittling his concerns about his fate. Most disturbing of all, the appointed attorney and the Assistant District Attorney, individually and perhaps together, engaged in behavior that at best was unprofessional and at worst, unethical, as they tried various ways to coerce Ivan into accepting a plea agreement.
Although at times he has been weary and even afraid, Ivan has not succumbed to the pressure to accept a plea deal. On the contrary, his struggle for justice has made him even more determined not to take the fall for something he did not do. When it became clear that his court-appointed attorney was not interested in helping him, Ivan borrowed money from relatives to retain private counsel. He is finally feeling more optimistic that this travesty of justice will turn around in his favor, but he needs help to continue the fight.
Ivan is 33 years old and lives in College Park, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. He is a full-time student at Atlanta Metropolitan College, majoring in Business and Criminal Justice. He needs to raise $10,000 to pay competent attorneys to defend him against these baseless charges.
We hope you will join Ivan in his quest for justice in Cleburne County, Alabama, by making a gift to his defense fund. If you want to know more about how this ordeal has unfolded, a detailed account follows.
With warmest regards and a grateful heart,
Proud Mother of Ivan Curtis Pitts
Ivan and his coworkers were in Heflin, Alabama, around 3:00 p.m. on February 7, 2013, when a code enforcement officer questioned them about their business license. Ivan introduced himself to the officer as the sales supervisor, and he showed the officer his driver's license and his business license. Unimpressed, the officer told Ivan his Alabama business license was insufficient, and he gave the sales crew two options: either go to city hall and purchase a Heflin business license or leave town. Given the lateness of the day, Ivan chose the latter option. The crew packed up their merchandise as the officer looked on and then immediately departed for Atlanta. Ivan was in the passenger seat. The code enforcement officer followed as they headed toward the interstate.
The trio complied with the officer's directives, but apparently that was not enough. As they approached the onramp, a second policeman made a u-turn and turned on his blue lights. The driver pulled into a nearby Chevron station. By the time the car had come to a complete stop, it was encircled by four police cars, all with their blue lights flashing. The officer who approached the car claimed he smelled marijuana and ordered everyone to exit the car. Another officer searched the car, eventually emerging with a 4-inch by 5-inch piece of folded paper that contained a clump of ashes measuring about one square inch and 2 to 3 small greenish sprigs about the size of parsley snips, or as the officer described in the arrest report, "a small amount of green plant material." All three were taken into custody and charged with possession of marijuana.
Ivan has been living a nightmare ever since. Initially, he was charged with a felony offense because he had a prior misdemeanor conviction for possession of marijuana in Georgia six years ago. Ivan had hoped the judge would not find probable cause at his preliminary hearing on May 8, 2013, but he knew the odds were not in his favor, and he fully expected that he would have to go to trial. Frankly, he wanted a jury trial because he felt confident that reasonable people would not find that he had knowledge of or connection to an item that had been wedged in the door pocket of a car that was owned and driven by a person he barely knew. He was looking forward to having his day in court, but it did not happen on May 8, 2013.
What did happen on May 8th was appalling. The appointed attorney acted as if he knew the preliminary hearing would not take place. When Ivan pressed him to talk about the questions he was planning to pose to the police officer on cross-examination, he said he didn't have any. Instead, he directed Ivan to prepare the list of questions. He also refused to discuss how he planned to refute the State's evidence. Yet, he seemed doggedly determined to dispose of the case quickly, as he relentlessly badgered Ivan to accept a deal. And what a deal it was: For a plea of guilty to a misdemeanor offense, Ivan's sentence would include a fine, 6 months of intense reporting probation, mandatory drug counseling, mandatory drug testing, and mandatory monthly in-person status reports to the court.
When Ivan refused this ridiculous offer, the attorney became outright disrespectful. He yelled at Ivan and called him stupid because Ivan wanted to proceed with the preliminary hearing. He couldn't understand why Ivan would not prefer to have a misdemeanor trial. A felony case would have to be transferred out of district court, and that just didn't make sense. In the end, the appointed attorney made sure the matter stayed in district court by forging a deal with the Assistant District Attorney to amend the charge to a misdemeanor anyway. When Ivan persistently questioned him about how the charge had been amended and who authorized it, the attorney soundly scolded him for being ungrateful.
As the trial date approached, it was clear the attorney did not intend to defend Ivan. He failed to take even the most rudimentary steps to build a defense. For instance, he didn't file a request for discovery of the officers' dashcam videos. Instead, he "checked" with the police and sent Ivan a letter that simply stated, "There is no dashcam video." Apparently, he was not the least bit curious about why the dashcams in all four police cars were inoperative when the officers followed and then surrounded the trio at the Chevron gas station. He was satisfied with the response from the police, even though he knew that the interim Police Chief was driving one of the cars. He also never questioned the legality of the traffic stop or the search, and he did not inquire into the whereabouts of lab reports on the "small amount of green plant material."
In The New Jim Crow, Professor Michelle Alexander describes how plea bargains perpetuate the problem of mass incarceration of minorities in the U.S.: "Never before in our history [have] such an extraordinary number of people felt compelled to plead guilty, even if they are innocent, simply because the punishment for the minor, nonviolent offense with which they have been charged is so unbelievably severe:[O]nly extremely courageous (or foolish) defendants turn the offer down."*
If mass incarceration is the "new Jim Crow," the plea bargain harkens back to an even darker period of our nation's history. It is the "new whip" that prosecutors use to coerce poor defendants, particularly blacks, into pleading guilty for crimes they did not commit, forcing them to submit to the control of the criminal justice system for months or years on end. Instead of defending Ivan, his appointed attorney joined with the state to relentlessly and mercilessly crack a whip to intimidate and frighten him into submitting to a ridiculous deal.
Fortunately, Ivan ignored the insults and the threats and took charge of his destiny. He filed a request for change of attorney with the court on May 30, 2013, citing among his concerns the attorney's apparent unauthorized agreement with the State to amend the charge to a misdemeanor and his failure to develop even a modicum of a defense strategy. One week before trial was to begin on June 13, 2013, the court had not responded to Ivan's request for change of attorney, so Ivan called the appointed attorney and demanded that he withdraw from the case. The attorney refused to withdraw and dared Ivan to "be a man" and appear in person to ask the judge to remove him from the case.
Forced into a misdemeanor bench trial, Ivan borrowed $2000 from relatives to retain private counsel in June 2013. Since then, his case has been continued three times. On November 7, 2013, when Ivan thought he would finally have his day in court, the Assistant District Attorney made a surprising maneuver. Approximately one hour before the trial was scheduled to start, the Assistant District Attorney called Ivan's attorneys to notify them that he was dismissing Ivan's misdemeanor case. Although their presence would not have been required since the case was being dismissed, Ivan's attorneys ignored the message and continued their trip from Birmingham to Heflin. When they arrived in court, they learned for the first time that the Assistant District Attorney was not really done with Ivan. He had dismissed the misdemeanor case, but he was planning to obtain a felony indictment against Ivan when the Cleburne County Grand Jury convened in February 2014.
Prosecutors have unlimited discretion in deciding who they will charge with a criminal offense, the type of criminal charges to file, what plea deals to offer, and which charges to drop. In Ivan's case, the Assistant District Attorney appears to be walking a fine line between the exercise of his discretion and abuse of it. Ivan's appointed attorney gave Ivan a copy of a court record that noted "in the judge's handwriting" an "agreement with the State and the officer that reduces [his] case to a misdemeanor." Despite this "agreement," which allegedly was made in open court and recorded by the presiding judge, the Assistant District Attorney, failed to adequately convey to Ivan's attorneys his plan to re-charge Ivan with a felony offense in 2014, or worse, he deliberately tried to mislead them. Either way, to Ivan the maneuver was but another crack of the whip, and the consequences would have been devastating if his attorneys had not persisted.
The US Constitution grants a right to counsel to defendants who are facing criminal trials. It does not guarantee the quality of the appointed counsel, however. In Heflin, Alabama, defendants who cannot afford their own attorney are likely to be coerced, intimidated, and scolded for asserting their innocence if their cases are assigned to Ivan's former attorney or others like him.
Ivan was fortunate to have relatives that could help him retain competent representation. But the cost of justice is steep. In addition to the $2000 he borrowed from relatives, Ivan still owes his attorneys $1500 for the first phase of the trial. The second phase of the trial is likely to cost another $6500, for a total cost of $10,000.
Martin Luther King, Jr. has said, "...passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil."** Ivan has been steadfast and courageous in his battle for a fair trial and justice. Will you stand with him? Your gift will ensure that competent attorneys will be at Ivan's side each step of the way, and you will help cast a bright light on the injustices that are occurring in Cleburne County, Alabama.
Thank you for taking the time to read Ivan's story. We appreciate your support.
*Michelle Alexander, THE NEW JIM CROW 86 (The New Press, New York 2010)
**Martin Luther King, Jr., STRENGTH TO LOVE 7 (Fortress Press Gift Edition 2010)
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