HUNTSVILLE — Former Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin achieved partial success Tuesday in her effort to modify her probation terms to allow her to possess guns, arguing that numerous intruders on her property have placed her at risk.
After a lengthy hearing, much of it behind closed doors, Magistrate Judge Herman Johnson Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama in Huntsville modified the terms of her probation on a tax charge to allow her to keep one firearm in a safe in her residence.
“I’m pleased she now has a weapon,” William Gray, Franklin’s lawyer, said after the ruling. "Maybe there won’t be any more threats. She’s an expert marksman.”
Franklin did not testify, but after the hearing said there have been “hundreds” of people and vehicles entering her property without authorization.
She said at one point, a motion-activated camera photographed a person taking a picture of the horse trailer at her residence at the same time someone else was taking a photo of her vehicle in Colorado.
“So at the very same time someone was on my property, at my house knowing I was gone, they also were in Oklahoma taking a picture of my vehicle. We know that,” Franklin said. “They followed me daily. I know someone has been to Florida; to Biloxi, Mississippi; to Reno, Nevada; to Oklahoma following me.”
Gray told the judge that Franklin lives in a remote road in Morgan County that normally would have little traffic. He said she has several motion-activated cameras that have captured numerous images of unauthorized people entering her property in 2017 and 2018.
Gray provided the judge with a large folder consisting of photographs, most taken from the motion-activated cameras. The photos were part of a sealed pleading, and thus were not visible to anyone in the courtroom but the parties, their attorneys and the judge.
Exhibit 1, he said, was a photo of a man who had been convicted of a felony in Morgan County while Franklin was sheriff. He described several photos taken on different dates of the man in a yellow Volkswagen on Franklin’s property.
“He entered Ms. Franklin’s house while Ms. Franklin was in the house. Eventually, because she had a weapon, he left the home,” Gray said.
Franklin pleaded guilty to the federal misdemeanor charge of willful failure to file a tax return in January and was sentenced last month to two years of probation and 300 hours of community service. An Oct. 21 order outlined the terms of the probation, including the prohibition on her possessing firearms. That order prompted numerous pleadings by Franklin, all of which were sealed by the court at Gray’s request.
Most of the photos described by Gray on Tuesday depicted vehicles entering or leaving Franklin’s property, and he said in most cases the vehicles’ drivers could not be identified. Some of the described photos showed individuals on Franklin’s porch.
Door kicked in
One of the photos, as described by Gray, showed that in 2017 Franklin’s front door had been kicked in.
“That’s a picture of Ms. Franklin’s desk that had been rifled through,” Gray said of a photo in the same sequence. “Some documents were missing.”
Many of the photos were time-stamped after midnight.
A March 30, 2017, photo depicted the same Morgan County felon in a VW who had entered Franklin’s house earlier, Gray said. Another, in July 2017, showed an individual walking “in close proximity to her house.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Posey objected to Franklin being allowed to possess guns during her two-year probationary period.
“I understand that the gist of the defendant’s argument is a concern for the defendant’s personal safety,” Posey told the judge, but the state is focused on the public safety ramifications of allowing her to possess a firearm. “First of all, the nature of the offense in this case, and the eventual conviction, involves a willful violation, which is an intentional violation, of a known legal duty, which I would say is more concerning for public safety than a negligent violation.”
In April 2018, then-Morgan County Circuit Judge Glenn Thompson issued an order finding that Franklin and two of her deputies “deliberately misled” the court in securing search warrants they then executed at the home of Franklin’s jail warden and at the Falkville business of Glenda Lockhart, who operated a blog critical of Franklin. He ruled that Franklin and the deputies “endeavored to hide or cover up their deception and criminal actions under the color of law.” He also found that Franklin and her deputies convinced Lockhart’s grandson to place a keylogger device on her computer to covertly collect passwords.
Posey referenced the order in his objection to Franklin’s probation terms being modified.
“There was an order from Judge Thompson … involving a situation where the defendant apparently was found to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment rights of a citizen of the county where she was sheriff,” Posey said. “The apparent willingness of this former law enforcement officer to ignore the constitution raises a concern for public safety, particularly when it comes to the use and carrying of a firearm.”
In issuing his decision, Johnson said he was weighing the fact that Franklin’s conviction — willful failure to file a tax return — was a misdemeanor that had nothing to do with firearms or violence.
“The criminal tax loss here was zero dollars,” Johnson said. “And as we know, most such cases do not result in even a prosecution, much less a conviction.”
But Johnson went on to say he found Thompson’s April 2018 order compelling.
“The (Thompson) court did find there were violations of the Fourth Amendment and unlawful conduct … regarding the placement of a surveillance device” on Glenda Lockhart’s computer. “I find this reliable.”
Johnson said he understood Franklin’s argument that she needed a firearm for protection.
“I’m also troubled by the nature of the threat against you as detailed in the evidence that was proffered by your attorney. I find there is a credible threat against you based upon the incursions on your property,” he said.
Because most of the threats were near her residence, he modified the probation terms to allow her to have one firearm in her home, which she must keep locked in a safe.
“I do believe you should have the opportunity to defend yourself,” he said.
After the hearing, Posey said Johnson’s comments about the rarity of prosecutions for failing to file a tax return when the United States suffered no tax loss did not cause him to second-guess the prosecution of Franklin.
“There had been an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service. The count that was eventually charged was not the only tax offense that was considered. We consulted with the Tax Division of the Department of Justice in Washington for some time concerning what sort of charges were appropriate, and it was finally determined that the charge that was filed was, under all circumstances, the appropriate charge,” Posey said.
Posey said that, despite his formal objection to modification of the probation terms, he thought Johnson’s ruling was reasonable.
“It limits her possession of a firearm to her own property, which the evidence shows is pretty remote, so I think that’s a reasonable way to both address her personal safety concern and the public safety,” he said.