By Lee Roop 

Huntsville Police car ( file)

A change to Alabama law last year has put at risk Huntsville’s authority to issue “summons and complaint” notices including traffic tickets to citizens, the City Council learned Thursday night.

The complicated story starts Aug. 1, 2021 when the Legislature changed Alabama law to “expand the categories of offenses for which a summons and complaint can be issued.” Arrests are still required in serious offenses involving violence, drugs and alcohol, or risk to the public. But summons are now legal for most misdemeanors, and that can mean a huge load off small town police forces and a faster way of handling numerous minor offenses.

Huntsville already has wide summons and complaint authority and has been considering expanding that to replace arrests for simple possession of small amounts of marijuana.

“What’s happened and the reason I’m here talking to you tonight is that last August, about a year ago, the Legislature made some changes to the state law that allowed us to enact that (summons and complaint) ordinance,” consulting attorney David Canupp said. “Whether by accident or not, that law has made it so the ordinance we adopted cannot legally be applied.”

The city’s ordinance allows Huntsville police to issue summons to municipal court where city judges rule on cases and impose fines or send people to jail if guilty. But the change to the law says citation authority only applies to municipalities that do not employ a full-time municipal judge. The city of Huntsville has three full-time municipal judges meaning its summons and citation authority is now questionable.

The answer could be getting a local law passed to protect the city’s citation power, the council was told. It could be as simple as 10 words: “Ala. Code 11-45-9-1 shall apply to the City of Huntsville, Alabama.” But that can’t happen until the Legislature is next in session.

Deputy Police Chief Dewayne McCarver said the Police Department supports a fix. One implication is the city’s noise ordinance, McCarver said. “If we leave this the way it is, our officers will have to arrest every person who plays their music too loud,” McCarver said. “The way the law is written right now, we should be making those arrests.” McCarver made it clear the police don’t want to make those arrests.

The council took no action Thursday night including on Mayor Tommy Battle’s joking suggestion to make Huntsville’s three municipal judges technically part-time but still pay them their full-time salaries. What happens next isn’t clear, but it appeared possible the city will have to wait until January when the Legislature reconvenes to seek a local exception.