The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An 82-year-old didn’t pay her $77 trash bill. Police arrested her.

(Fenit Nirappil/The Washington Post)
4 min

When she saw the police car from the window of her house last week, Martha Menefield walked to her front door to tell the officer outside that he had come to the wrong home.

“Are you Martha Menefield?” she recalled the officer asking.

After Menefield, 82, responded yes, she said the officer replied: “Well, Ms. Martha, I got to arrest you.”

Menefield said she couldn’t believe it. When she asked why, she was told a warrant had been issued for her arrest because of an unpaid trash bill.

The overdue amount: $77.80, the Associated Press reported.

Shortly after, the officer followed Menefield into her house while she got a sweater, then handcuffed her hands in front of her body. She was taken to the jail that services Valley, Ala., a city of roughly 10,000 people about an hour northeast of Montgomery.

The Valley resident of nearly three decades told The Washington Post that she was glad her grandkids, who stay at her house on some weekends, weren’t there to see her arrest on Nov. 27.

“I couldn’t too much believe what was going on, especially when he handcuffed me,” Menefield said. “That’s what scared me.”

The city posted an explanation for Menefield’s arrest on Facebook on Tuesday. In the days since, thousands of people have denounced the arrest, with some describing it in the comments as “shameful” and “pathetic.”

Matt VanHouten, a close family friend to Menefield, was one of them.

“At first it was like, ‘Are you serious? They arrested her for a trash bill?’ ” VanHouten, 35, told The Post. “This is ridiculous.”

Menefield was charged with a misdemeanor of “failure to pay solid waste fees” for an outstanding bill covering the months of June, July and August, the AP reported, citing court documents.

In August, Valley code enforcement officers issued Menefield a citation instructing her to appear in court Sept. 7 after they could not reach her via phone or in person at her home to discuss the overdue charges, according to the city’s statement.

After she did not appear, a warrant was issued for Menefield for “Failure to Pay-Trash.”

“While our officers can use their discretionary judgment on certain matters, the enforcement of an arrest warrant issued by the court and signed by a magistrate, is not one of them,” Valley Police Chief Mike Reynolds said in the news release.

Menefield was “treated respectfully” by officers during the arrest, Reynolds said. He did not respond to a phone message seeking an interview.

The city had suspended Menefield’s trash services three times over the past two years for lack of payment, the news release said. Since 2006, Menefield has had 22 “incidents” when her trash services were either suspended or revoked, according to the release.

She was arrested in 2006 after not paying a $206.54 trash bill, according to court records obtained by the AP, but the case was dismissed “upon compliance.”

A retiree served food to the homeless for years. Then it got her arrested.

In the most recent case, Menefield told The Post that she hadn’t received the calls or the notice informing her of the unpaid charges.

Menefield’s daughter, Neketti Tucker, who helps manage her mother’s bills, told a local CBS outlet that an unpaid trash charge should not result in an arrest.

“This isn’t a criminal act,” Tucker said.

Underneath the city’s Facebook post, many agreed with Tucker, and comments flowed in from people asking how to help pay Menefield’s bill.

“There have been a million people offering to pay her bill,” said Thea McElvy, a receptionist at the Chambers County Clerk’s Office, though she told The Post that the balance could not be paid until Menefield’s next court date, which she said is in January.

News of Menefield’s arrest spread quickly around the Valley community after the city’s Facebook post. When VanHouten told his father about Menefield’s arrest, the first words he responded with were: “I would’ve paid her trash bill for her. I love that lady.”

VanHouten and his family have known Menefield — whom he calls “Ms. Martha” — for years, he said, calling her “one of the kindest” people he’d ever met. His mother and Menefield were close friends when VanHouten was growing up and bonded over their shared job of running day cares for children in Valley, he said. And, coincidentally, they are both named Martha.

One of the last times VanHouten saw Menefield was at his mother’s funeral in 2011. Menefield’s arrest “just feels like an overreach,” VanHouten said.

On Friday, VanHouten stopped by to see “Ms. Martha” at her home. She told him that many people had come by to see how they could help, just as he did.

“It really made me feel good that they care about what was going on here with me,” Menefield told The Post on Saturday.