Alabama woman jailed for using drugs while pregnant sues; was never pregnant

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A woman who was jailed for allegedly using drugs during pregnancy filed a lawsuit against the Etowah County sheriff’s office, arguing she was never pregnant, AL.com reported. The lawsuit filed by Stacey Freeman alleges that investigators placed a child’s words over medical confirmation.

According to the lawsuit, Freeman was under investigation by the Department of Human Resources for substance use when one of her children told a social worker her mom was pregnant. Freeman offered to take a pregnancy test, and Etowah County Department of Human Resources employees entered an order for one. Freeman was never given the test, and Etowah County Sheriff Investigator Brandi Fuller issued a warrant for her arrest.

In 2013, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled the chemical endangerment law applied to pregnant women and fetuses. At the time, the law was passed to protect children from the dangers of home meth labs. Now the law is used to arrest and imprison women, even if they end up delivering healthy babies.

Freeman was arrested for chemical endangerment of a child and booked on February 1 into the Etowah County Detention Center. She was released about 36 hours after her arrest, and the charges were dropped. Her attorney Martin Weinberg argues that the ordeal was still embarrassing his client.

“It’s just shameful you can go off somebody’s word that somebody’s pregnant,” Weinberg stated to AL.com. “It’s easy to verify through a pregnancy test.”

The lawsuit names Fuller and Etowah County Sheriff Jonathon Horton.

Freeman faced the standard bond conditions for chemical endangerment in Etowah County that required her to put up $10,000 cash and enter rehab.

County officials have ended that practice in most cases following reports from AL.com that the practice was being carried out excessively. According to AL.com, police arrested Ashley Banks on May 25 with a small amount of marijuana and a pistol without a permit to carry. Banks admitted to smoking pot on the same day she found out she was pregnant – two days before her arrest. In Etowah County, that meant she couldn’t leave jail unless she entered drug rehab. She was held in jail for three months.

The lawsuit argues that Fuller has been involved in “an obscene number of arrests for pregnant and postpartum women.” Research by Pregnancy Justice found that Etowah County arrested and prosecuted more women for drug use during pregnancy than any other county in the state. More than 150 women have been identified by their researchers, and Fuller was involved in most cases.

“Pregnant women and new mothers should never have been unconstitutionally detained in the Etowah County Jail for a single day, let alone for months on end,” said Emma Roth, Staff Attorney with Pregnancy Justice and lead attorney on Pregnancy Justice’s Etowah cases. “While we’re thrilled they’re finally being released, the trauma inflicted on them and their young children from their prolonged separation can never be undone. Etowah County’s policy change is a meaningful first step, but Pregnancy Justice will not stop fighting until substance use, and pregnancy is treated as a matter of public health, not a reason to put mothers behind bars.”

“The Sheriff’s department and its employees have been reckless in investigating in making arrests of women for chemical endangerment and then encouraging their prosecution,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit alleges false imprisonment, defamation, and negligence by the Etowah County Sheriff’s Department. It said investigators relied on the word of a minor child and failed to confirm the facts before arresting and jailing Freeman. As a result, Freeman suffered public humiliation.

Her charges have been dropped, but they haven’t been expunged, so the case remains available as a public record. The warrant incorrectly states that Freeman tested positive for marijuana, amphetamines, and alcohol while pregnant.

“It’s good that the charges were dropped,” Weinberg said. “But there’s harm in someone even being arrested and spending two days in jail. Wrongful arrest and malicious arrest is problematic on its own.”

Alabama has long led the nation in arrests of women who use drugs during pregnancy, although reporting by The Marshall Project, The Frontier, and AL.com finds this approach is spreading to other states, including Oklahoma and South Carolina.