When a sheriff’s deputy pulled Emmanuel Pullom over on a suburban street near Birmingham, Alabama, the night of Dec. 1, 2018, he suspected that Pullom had stolen the black Ford pickup he was driving.
The deputy handcuffed Pullom, searched the truck and then took him to the Jefferson County Jail in downtown Birmingham, according to the incident report.
But Pullom wasn’t charged with stealing the truck, which he says he had recently purchased from a friend. Instead, he was charged with failing to possess a piece of laminated paper that identified him as a felon.
“The cop said, ‘Where’s your felon card?’” Pullom recalled in an interview last month. “I said, ‘What kind of card?’ He said, ‘If you’ve got three felonies, you’ve got to get a felon card.’”
More than 300 people in Alabama have been charged since 2014 under a little-known, but long-standing state law requiring people with more than two felony convictions to register with their local sheriff’s offices and carry cards identifying them as repeat felons, according to arrest data analyzed by AL.com and ProPublica.
Violations carry the threat of jail time and fines. A man in north Alabama served a one-year sentence for failing to register as a felon and obtain a felon registration card.
While some other states have felon registration requirements, criminal law professors said they believe Alabama is the only one with a law requiring registration cards.
Legal experts say the law is likely unconstitutional and reminiscent of slavery-era restrictions that required black people in many parts of the South to present identification to white people on demand.
“The card is reminiscent of the cards Jews were forced to carry in the ghettos,” John H. Blume, a criminal law professor at Cornell Law School, said via email.
“It will also give police the ability to stop people they know are felons to see if they have their cards and … to avoid things like reasonable suspicion and probable cause.”
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, which arrested Pullom, did not respond to requests for comment.
Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran, the top law enforcement official in Alabama’s second-largest county, defended the requirement. He said the charge “gives you a good stepping stone” for jailing someone suspected of other crimes, when there otherwise isn’t enough evidence to make an arrest.
“This guy’s a five-time felon or something,” Cochran said in an interview. “And you say, ‘Hey, where’s your convicted felon thing?’ And he says, ‘Well, I don’t have one.’ You say, ‘Well, hey, bud, I [didn’t] have nothing to arrest you on, but now I do.’”
“‘So now I’m gonna arrest you, now I’m gonna inventory your car and tow it in. And if I found 5 pounds of pot in your car, then you’re gonna be arrested for trafficking marijuana.’”
Repeat felon Derrick Rhodes has a different take. In 2016, he was arrested in Henry County and charged with failing to possess a felon ID card. Rhodes, 41, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 days of suspended confinement and two years of probation and ordered to pay hundreds of dollars of fees, fines and court costs. He has since obtained a felon registration card that he carries everywhere he goes
“What’s the use of having a card on you when you’re a free man?” he said. “I’m not their prisoner no more.”
“It Shall Be the Duty”
Beginning in the 1930s, jurisdictions across the U.S. instituted so-called criminal registration laws in response to rising concerns about organized crime and other illegal activity.
In 1935, Birmingham became an early adopter of such restrictions when it passed a city ordinance requiring that felons register with law enforcement “upon their arrival in the city,” The New York Times reported at the time.
“Police officials hope that the law will give them an accurate check upon the criminal element. … It also is expected that it will result in an exodus of a great many known criminals.”
Many such laws and ordinances have since been invalidated or repealed, but the federal government and individual states have instituted a series of increasingly restrictive sex offender registry laws since the 1980s. And many states and localities across the U.S. have approved narrower registration laws that apply to people convicted of specific crimes, such as arson, serious drug crimes and gun violence.
Florida, Mississippi and Nevada have felon registration requirements, but they do not require felons to have or carry registration cards, sometimes referred to as “ex-felon cards.” In fact, Nevada law specifically bars such requirements: “The sheriff of a county or the chief of police of a city shall not require a convicted person to carry a registration card.”
In 1966, a special session of the Alabama Legislature approved the Alabama Felon Registration Act, which instituted the statewide felon registration requirements that remain in place today.
Lawmakers passed the legislation “to aid the law enforcement agencies in detecting and preventing and reducing recidivistic behavior,” according to an article about the law published in the 1966-67 edition of the Alabama Law Review.
The law requires that anyone who “resides” in Alabama and “has been convicted more than twice of a felony” anywhere in the U.S. must “register within 24 hours after his arrival in the county” and obtain a registration card from the sheriff’s office.
“It shall be the duty of such person to carry the card with him at all times while he is within the county and to exhibit the same to any officer of a municipality, a county or the state upon request.”
The maximum penalty for failing to obey the felon registration law is 30 days in jail and a $50 fine per day spent in violation, which can add up to lengthy and expensive sentences over time.
From 2014 to 2018, there have been 235 arrests in Alabama on state charges of not having a felon ID card and 53 arrests for the separate charge of failure to register with the local sheriff. Police also made nine arrests of felons who failed to notify the local sheriff of a change of address. Individual law enforcement agencies across the state have reported dozens more arrests on the charges in 2019 and this year.
Of those arrested on the charges between 2014 and 2018, about 61% were white and 38% were black, according to the state data. As of July 2019, the U.S. Census estimated that 69% of Alabama residents were white and 27% were black.
Such arrests are made in large urban counties like Jefferson, Montgomery and Baldwin, as well as in more rural counties like Franklin in Alabama’s northwest corner and Henry in the southeast.
Public records show that some local jurisdictions in Alabama have additional requirements. Arrest reports show that people have been charged in recent years in Alabama towns including Gadsden and Dothan with violating local ordinances requiring felon registration and identification.
A limited number of places outside Alabama, such as Zanesville, Ohio, and the Borough of Berlin, New Jersey, also have felon identification laws or ordinances on their books.
Sometimes people serve serious time for failing to carry their felon IDs.
Quincy Tisdale says that at the time of his arrest in August 2014, he was “the only black man living on Sand Mountain,” a low ridge in north Alabama. “So I stuck out like a sore thumb.” He was also dating a white woman, a fact that he says drew the ire of some white residents of the largely rural area, which has a long history of racial tension.
So the 38-year-old father of three says he was regularly pulled over and searched by Marshall County sheriff’s deputies and local police officers, but they never had cause to arrest him.
One morning a Marshall County sheriff’s deputy stopped Tisdale in his silver Kia sedan as he drove through the small town of Grant and informed him that he had found a reason to lock him up.
“When he pulled me over, he said, ‘Didn’t I tell you I was gonna get your black ass one day?’” Tisdale recalled during a January interview in the living room of the friend’s home in Scottsboro, where he is currently staying.
“He said: ‘I know you don’t got your felon ID card. Come on, get out of the car.’ … When they arrested me that day, that’s the first I heard I had to have a felony card or I’d go to jail.”
Tisdale, who had previous felony convictions for crimes including burglary, theft and assault, was arrested and booked into the Marshall County Jail and charged with failure to register with the sheriff’s office and failure to possess an ex-felon card. It is the only time Tisdale has been arrested in the county, according to state court records. His bond was set at $1,500, court records show.
Tisdale pleaded guilty to the charges in October 2014 and was sentenced to 365 days in the Marshall County Community Corrections work release program — a residential jail alternative in which inmates earn money to pay down fines, fees and restitution by working for contracted companies. Tisdale says that while he was at the work release, he worked long hours deboning and loading chickens at a poultry processing plant.
In February 2015, after breaking the rules of the community corrections facility and getting into an argument with an employee, Tisdale was moved to the Marshall County Jail, where he served out the remainder of his sentence, court records show. He says that the punishment upended his life.
“When you take me away from my family, and I’m supporting my family, you’re pushing them out onto the streets,” he said.
Marshall County Sheriff Phil Sims, who became sheriff in January 2019, said his office does not “actively” seek out people violating the state’s felon registration and identification law.
“It’s not one of those things where we’re going out banging on doors or I’ve got someone assigned to look for people who haven’t registered,” he said. “It would generally be a secondary charge where there’s some other type of law enforcement contact like a domestic violence call or something.”
But he said that the law serves a valuable purpose, “kind of like the sex offender registry,” and that he would enforce it if his office were notified that someone in Marshall County had failed to register as a felon or obtain a registration card. Neither Sims’ predecessor, J. Scott Walls, who was sheriff at the time of Tisdale’s arrest, nor Walls’ attorney responded to requests for comment.
Tisdale says it’s an indignity to be forced to carry a felon ID card for the rest of his life: “It reminds me I’m a criminal, day in and day out.”
Like each of the criminal law professors interviewed for this story, Pullom said he never knew that Alabama required people with more than two felony convictions to carry registration cards.
He said that he only found out about the requirement when he was arrested for violating it, and that he believes the charge was little more than a pretense to apprehend him.
“Did I have drugs on me? Did I do anything wrong? No,” said Pullom, who has been convicted of several felonies including shooting a gun into an occupied building, drug possession and theft. “They were just trying to come up with something to arrest me for.”
In fact, the arresting deputy wrote in the incident report that the felon ID card charge would allow the sheriff’s office to hold Pullom in jail and “follow up with a property crimes detective … on any other charges.” The felon ID charge was dismissed two months after his arrest and no additional charges were filed.
Lynneice Washington, district attorney for Jefferson County’s Bessemer Division, said that “you’re marking a person” by requiring them to carry a felon registration card. She added that she does not recall having ever heard of felon registration or ID charges being brought in her division, which is a subsection of the county that does not include Adamsville, where Pullom was arrested.
“Just to stop a person because you know them and know their history and to ask them if they have a felon identification card and that’s an automatic charge if they don’t have it, I don’t agree with that,” she said.
In the 1957 case Lambert v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue of felon registration. A woman named Virginia Lambert had been found guilty of violating a Los Angeles municipal law that made it “unlawful for ‘any convicted person’ to be or remain in Los Angeles for a period of more than five days without registering.” The conviction was upheld on appeal.
But the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the California ruling. The majority wrote that Lambert’s constitutional right to due process had been violated because she most likely had no “actual knowledge” that not registering as a felon was a crime.
“So the question would be whether Alabama has done a better job giving notice to someone that they need to register and/or get the ID card,” Rachel E. Barkow, a law professor and faculty director of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at New York University School of Law, said via email.
The piecemeal enforcement of Alabama’s felon registration and identification law also raises concerns, according to Alvin Bragg, a visiting law professor at New York Law School and co-director of the school’s Racial Justice Project.
Two-thirds of the state’s 67 counties saw no such charges brought between 2014 and 2018.
“Ultimately every law has got to be rational and not arbitrary and that’s the standard of review,” Bragg said. “I think this comes perilously close to being irrational and excessively arbitrary.”
Michele Deitch, senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law and Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, said it would be difficult to argue that a year in jail is not a disproportionately harsh punishment for failing to carry a felon ID card.
“It would be challenged as an 8th Amendment violation,” she said. “It’s disproportionate to the underlying offense. And cruel and unusual — is there another locality that would sentence you to a year for that? Probably not. So that’s pretty unusual.”
Sometimes simply failing to change an address can land a person behind bars.
That’s what happened to Michael Kelsay, who has been on law enforcement’s radar in Baldwin County for years. The father of three says that he sold his pickup this winter because he was tired of being pulled over nearly every time he left his trailer park.
A self-described former drug addict and petty criminal, he has a rap sheet spanning two decades, during which time he has been convicted of crimes including drug possession, negotiating a worthless instrument and receiving stolen property. The 39-year-old has also been arrested on two separate occasions for crimes related to felon registration.
The first arrest took place one morning in August 2014, when Baldwin County sheriff’s deputies banged on the door at Kelsay’s mother’s house looking for him. When he came to the door, he says they informed him they had heard he was the last person seen with a criminal suspect they were trying to find.
After searching the area and determining the suspect was not there, Kelsay says one of the deputies ran his name through an electronic system, saw he was a repeat felon and asked him for his felon identification card.
“I show it to him. I’m like, ‘Boom, got it.’ They’re just grasping at straws, I feel like. Like, I’m good now,” Kelsay said during an interview in his kitchen last month.
“And then he hit me with, ‘Well, you don’t live at this address anymore,’ because I told him I was staying at my mom’s. I didn’t see the trap coming.”
Kelsay was arrested and charged with failing “to register, within 24 hours, his/her change of address or place of residence with the sheriff of Baldwin County,” according to court records. He says he was temporarily living at his mother’s house, 3 miles down the same road in Bay Minette from the address listed on his felon ID card.
Kelsay posted $5,000 bond and was released from jail three days after the arrest.
He was arrested a second time a month later and charged with failing to possess a felon registration card — he said the sheriff’s office had seized his card at the time of the first arrest because the address was incorrect and he had not replaced it — and again failing to notify the sheriff’s office that he had changed addresses. He pleaded guilty to the three charges that resulted from the two arrests and was sentenced to concurrent sentences of 30 days in jail and ordered to pay three $50 fines.
Anthony Lowery, chief deputy of the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office, defended the arrests.
“He was knowingly, willingly violating the law,” he said. “Obviously anytime you have a known convicted felon — like in this case Mr. Kelsay has been convicted multiple times of different crimes — [felon registration] does help. It’s a tool to protect the public.”
Lowery added that the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office pursues people who break the state’s felon registration law:
“If you’re asking if we’re just going out searching for these people, on occasion yes. … We’re charged with enforcing the law and if you’re a felon and you’re required to register and you’re violating the law then we’re going to enforce that.”
What sticks with Kelsay to this day is the idea that he was arrested because the law forever puts him in a separate category.
“I was flabbergasted by it. I couldn’t believe they took me to jail for that,” he said. “That’s what really bothers me about it is I feel like they charged me with that because they wanted me to go to jail.”