In between headlines about abortion, lottery proposals and public education, local law enforcement officials pushed a pair of bills throughout Alabama’s 2019 legislative session aimed at curbing local crime trends — only one of which was successfully passed.
Despite mixed results in Montgomery, Mobile Police Chief Lawrence Battiste and Public Safety Director James Barber were directly involved with two bills sponsored by local legislators — one pertaining to stolen guns and one related to denying bond in certain criminal cases.
Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Mobile, carried a bill that should help address the area’s ongoing issue with stolen handguns being used in crimes by making possession of a stolen firearm a felony offense.
Around 1,195 guns were reported stolen throughout Mobile in 2018, authorities say, but there has been a drop since then. From January to June of 2019, only 165 guns have been reported stolen to MPD, which is down from around 270 at the same time last year, according to MPD Spokesperson Charlette Solis.
Barber credited MPD’s efforts to encourage owners to properly secure their firearms for the reduction.
It’s been a significant focus for the Mobile Police Department (MPD) because of the number of crimes committed with stolen guns. Plus, over the past year and a half, two MPD officers have been killed with stolen guns — one that was taken from an unlocked car days earlier.
Barber said the new law gives police more leverage and will help them bring more charges in conjunction with federal authorities, who have also put an emphasis on gun crimes in recent years. Before the act of stealing a gun was considered a felony but simply being caught with one after the fact was only a misdemeanor offense.
That bill faced opposition, though, and only passed in the final hours of the session.
“There were concerns that it’s not a violent crime and that it would be creating another felony offense when prisons are already overcrowded,” Barber said. “Anybody who thinks someone arming themselves with a stolen pistol isn’t a violent criminal is out of touch with reality.”
Barber said he’s also hopeful the new gun bill will help avoid other proposed solutions to guns being taken from unsecured vehicles, including a proposal some members of the Mobile City Council have supported to fine gun owners whose unsecured weapons are used in crimes.
While the gun bill proved successful, another law enforcement initiative with even broader support among local officials failed to make it out of its Senate committee. That bill would have given judges more leeway to deny certain defendant’s right to pre-trial bond under specific circumstances.
Sponsored by State Rep. Chip Brown, R-Grand Bay, the law would allow defendants to be held without bond until their case is resolved if it involves a violent offense punishable by life in prison, or when there is a “strong presumption of guilt.”
Some of the bill’s opponents were concerned it would violate the constitutionally guaranteed presumption of innocence defendants are entitled to and could disproportionately impact socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. Barber disagrees with that assessment.
“This didn’t punish poverty, it does the exact opposite. This was to issue no bail, whether you’re rich or poor, and it was only violent offenders facing life in prison,” he said. “I think everybody should get pre-trial bail, but my contention was and is when you violate the terms of release or are rearrested for a violent crime, you no longer have that right.”
Even though Barber said he felt “done wrong” by the legislature, he and Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich have both said judges still have enough leeway to deny bond to criminals who pose a danger to the community or could prove to be a flight risk.
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