Traffic tickets in error, lawsuit alleges
By Marty Roney
AUTAUGAVILLE -- A federal class-action lawsuit against the town of Autaugaville could call into question the way 317 traffic tickets were issued.
The suit alleges that improperly supervised officers wrote tickets while working at the Autaugaville Police Department. The officers had not yet received Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) certification. The suit covers the period from Feb. 1, 2004, until the present.
Police Chief LeVan Johnson declined to comment on the pending suit.
A search of records at the Police Department showed 2,030 traffic citations were written from Feb. 1, 2004, until March 6. That's an average of about 85 tickets issued each month for the past 24 months. The department has three paid officers. The town has a population of 856, according to 2004 census estimates.
"Yeah, they do write a lot of tickets for a town this size, but there's a lot of folks speeding through town," said Ella Whetstone of Autaugaville. "I walk a lot, and it's scary on (Alabama) 14 sometimes. I want them to write tickets, but they need to make sure they do it right."
Ricardo Matthews and Cleo Frank Jackson, both of Autaugaville, filed the suit Feb. 28 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. The suit alleges that three officers, Michael McCollum, Donnie Martin and Wyatt Lee Seger III, issued traffic tickets before they attained certification from the Alabama POST Commission. The commission oversees the training of law enforcement officers in the state. The basic requirement for POST certification is graduating from an approved police academy.
Also named as defendants are Mayor Curtis Jackson and Johnson.
Uncertified officers can issue citations, but only under the "direct" supervision of a certified officer, said Jim DeBardelaben, the Montgomery attorney for the plaintiffs.
"I hate suing the officers, because they were just doing what they were told," DeBardelaben said. "We have to sue the officers to get to the chief and the mayor."
The lawsuit seeks restitution of fines and court costs for the tickets issued, and unspecified damages. The suit also seeks to nullify any arrests the officers made before they received POST certification. The three officers named in the action now have certification.
Any court-ordered payments likely will be made by the town's insurance company, said Robert Faulk, attorney for Autaugaville.
Under rule 650-X-2-01 of the commission, an unsupervised officer can receive a "provisional" appointment for six months, until the officer begins training at the police academy. But that officer's actions must be under the direct supervision of a certified officer. Direct supervision means the certified officer must be in close proximity to the uncertified officer, said Chief Alan Benefield, executive secretary of the POST commission.
"Having the supervisor in the office while the other officer is out in the car isn't direct supervision," Benefield said.
Lots of guys worked like this situation.