Elderly Women Arrested in Alabama for Feral Cat Care: A Unique Case

In 2022, Wetumpka, Alabama, police violently arrested two elderly women and charged them with a litany of criminal offenses. Their crime? Taking care of stray cats. The pair has now sued the officers, arguing that their arrest and the resulting charges against them were unconstitutional and caused “significant physical and emotional injuries.”

According to the complaint, Mary Alston, who was 60 at the time, often worked with Beverly Roberts who was then 84, to “trap-neuter-return” (TNR) feral cats. TNR is a common strategy of limiting stray cat populations by safely capturing cats, having them spayed or neutered by a veterinary clinic, and releasing or putting them up for adoption. According to their complaint, Roberts and Alston took up this practice because “neither the Humane Society nor any other animal rights organization had the resources to conduct TNR in or around the City of Wetumpka.”

On June 25, 2022, Alston was setting up a trap for a feral cat on local public property when she saw Wetumpka Mayor Jerry Willis drive past, followed by police vehicles. However, within minutes the three police officers who had been trailing Willis turned around and approached Alston. 

According to the complaint, Willis later admitted that after observing Alston, he ordered the police to approach her. Further, the lawsuit alleges that “Willis was angry that Ms. Roberts and Ms. Alston frequently complained, both publicly and to officials at Wetumpka City Hall, that. Willis was failing to enforce laws and ordinances prohibiting the ‘chaining’ of dogs.”

Body camera footage shows one officer telling Alston that someone called about a person feeding feral cats.

“Ya’ll got three cop cars because I’m feeding cats?” Alston said to the officer. “Wow, it’s unbelievable.”

The officers demanded that Alston leave the public property, and then left the scene. However, Shortly after this encounter, Roberts joined Alston. The pair were on public property, and sitting calmly, waiting for a cat they were hoping to trap to arrive. However, the three officers soon returned. This time, the complaint states that they informed Roberts that she would be arrested. When the officers handcuffed Roberts, Alston got out of her car and attempted to speak with the officers.

“The officers ordered Ms. Alston to quit talking and to get in her vehicle. Ms. Alston complied with the officers’ demand to get back into her vehicle but continued to try to speak to the officers,” the complaint states. In response, one of the officers, Brenden Foster responded by grabbing Ms. Alston, jerking her out of her vehicle by force, and then handcuffing her.”

The pair were then taken to a local jail, where they were mistreated further. While in jail, Roberts lost consciousness and hit her head. However, the complaint alleges that an officer who witnessed this did nothing, and she was not given any medical help. When Roberts later asked to make a phone call, she was allegedly told that a call is a “privilege, not a right,” which is in violation of Alabama law.

Ultimately, the pair was charged with “criminal trespass, obstructing governmental operations and disorderly conduct,” according to the complaint. In December 2022, a municipal Judge found the pair guilty and sentenced them to “10 days in jail, suspended, two years supervised probation, and a $50 fine on each charge,” though the charges were later dismissed on appeal.

While their charges were ultimately dismissed, the pair is still suing, arguing that the officers and mayor “directed the unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution of Ms. Roberts and Ms. Alston to retaliate against them for exercising their First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble on public property, engage in expressive conduct…and engage in peaceful political speech.”

However, it’s unclear whether the pair’s suit will be successful. Generous qualified immunity protections prevent police officers from being sued in civil court under most circumstances—meaning that police can count on being able to engage in gross misconduct with little risk of actually facing consequences.