News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion


ABC should heed lessons from deadly 2002 raid

The most important result of the court decision throwing out claims against law enforcement officers who killed James Hulett in a raid was that it vindicated Morgan County Sheriff's Deputy Jim England, who fired the shots that killed Mr. Hulett.

We hope the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board heeds two lessons from the incident, though. One, that needless secrecy hurts both law enforcement officers and the community. Two, that plain-clothes raids are not always the answer, especially for minor crimes.

In a decision released Thursday, a federal court threw out all claims against ABC, Morgan County Sheriff's deputies and the Decatur Police Department. The court's ruling was based upon two primary facts. One, Mr. Hulett's police record gave officers reason to worry that he would react violently in the raid. Two, Mr. Hulett reacted violently and quickly, shooting his gun at an ABC officer and aiming it at Deputy England within seconds of the beginning of the raid.

Mr. Hulett's death damaged this community. The basic facts — that law enforcement officers killed a black man in a raid over selling beer on a Sunday — raised immediate concerns among blacks in Decatur. Like most of Alabama, Decatur is in the midst of a healing process that, hopefully, will one day permit unreserved unity between its races.

That day is not here. Blacks, and many sympathetic whites, looked at the small amount of information released by ABC and concluded the incident followed a long and horrible pattern. An out-of-town group calling itself the New Black Panthers traveled to Decatur because of the incident, dividing the races even more.

There are times when secrecy is necessary after law enforcement activities. It strains credibility to suggest that this was one of those times. James Hulett was dead; jeopardizing any planned prosecution was not an issue. June Hulett, his wife, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

Openness by the ABC could have prevented aggravating Decatur's racial scab. The facts related by the judge — almost four years after the raid — make the shooting understandable. Deputy England would have been remiss had he not fired the shots. Citizens are smart enough to understand that, if they have the facts.

Alabama law permits ABC to deny information to the public, but it does not require it. Over the years, ABC has become lazy in its reaction to public requests. It's easier to deny such requests — including several made by THE DAILY — than to evaluate each one. In this case, considerable social harm resulted from its refusal to divulge information. We would hope that the ABC would adopt a policy of trying to find a way to comply with such requests when possible.

Another lesson that arises from this matter involves the raid and how it was planned. The court rightly concluded that, given the circumstances at the time of the raid, Deputy England had no choice. What he did not address was whether a raid was necessary at all. Nor did he address one of Mrs. Hulett's main concerns, that the raiding officers were not in uniform.

Before the raid began, ABC had a clear-cut case against the Huletts. The Huletts sold alcoholic beverages on four separate occasions to undercover agents. Indeed, the only function of a raid was to discover the stash of beer and liquor in the home. The wisdom of a raid seems even more suspect given Mr. Hulett's lengthy criminal record. Why put officers at risk when agents had already collected the evidence?

Also hard to understand is why the officers in the raid came in an unmarked van and wore no uniforms or other apparel clearly marking them as law enforcement. Even a rational person might pull a gun if 10 men with guns storm his house. Apparently the officers yelled out that they were police, but wearing uniforms could not have hurt. Doing so could have prevented Mr. Hulett's death and would have reduced the risk to the raiding officers.

Doing in Decatur what can be done legally 20 miles to the east — selling alcohol on a Sunday — is not an offense that merits putting at risk the lives of law enforcement officers or civilians. Nor does it justify secrecy when the cost of that secrecy is racial conflict.

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