Huntsville City Council calls for police discretion on misdemeanors, passes pay raise for city employees
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - Huntsville city leaders agree, not every minor crime warrants an arrest. Instead, city council members said Thursday night, police officers should have the ability to choose whether some misdemeanors call for an offender to be hauled off to jail.
City leaders say making this change would reduce overcrowding in the county jail, help impoverished people, and help people who made a mistake save face. Once a mugshot is logged onto the jail’s website, it’s very difficult to permanently remove.
However, the city cannot give police this power of discretion, yet.
A city spokesperson says a state law enacted in 2021 requires any city with a full-time magistrate to make full arrests on misdemeanor offenses. The provision is already allowed in other Alabama cities that don’t have a full-time city judge. The spokesperson says the city actually has an existing law that gives police discretion on misdemeanor offenses for most misdemeanors, excluding drug crimes and a few others, it’s just negated by state law.
Huntsville City Council passed a resolution Thursday night asking state lawmakers to change the state code. If and when the state code changes, the previous ordinance would take effect. From there, a councilmember could have it amended to include misdemeanor drug crimes.
In a conversation between Councilman Devyn Keith and an attorney regarding the possibility, they discussed disparities between Huntsville and other Alabama cities.
“In your findings of other cities, the only difference between us and the other cities who have this ability provision is the municipal judge?” said Keith.
“Correct, under the change to the law, every small city in Alabama that has part-time judges can continue to use this procedure. It’s only the larger cities with full time municipal judges that have to get the local law passed.”
A city spokesperson said that once the change is made, not every misdemeanor offender will be given a citation. Police will have discretion. They may still choose to bring a someone in on a misdemeanor charge for booking. There are also some misdemeanors that require booking, like public intoxication.
The spokesperson also said that this doesn’t reduce any punishments for crimes. Someone issued a misdemeanor citation would still have to show up for court and face his or her charges.
Another item on Thursday night’s agenda: discretionary improvement funds, called the Council Improvement Funds . It would allowing council members to use $75,000 to the benefit of their district to be used at their discretion. It was a point of contention among members and the mayor, with concern over transparency.
“Before we spend any money, we have at least 3, 4 sets of eyes on it and people look at it and say does this make sense, does this make the city of Huntsville a better place,” Mayor Tommy Battle started. “And when we get discretionary funding, we’re asking one set of eyes to look at it, but we’re not checking it the way that we check to make sure taxpayers money is spent wisely.”
Other council members were in support of the measure.
“The only thing that’s different in what you’re proposing is that we don’t have to go to mommy and daddy and ask for money and we ask each other,” said Frances Akridge, of District 2. “We don’t have to go ask the administration that we make some decisions based on what we know needs to be done and won’t have to cajole, convince, or plead anybody else.”
District 1 Council member Keith was also in support.
“I don’t know what I was use my Council Improvement Funds for because those projects have not been presented to me, thus I then echo, and it seems to be budgetary hypocrisy that there’s been a Twickenham festival that received funding because it Mayor said it was a good idea. We have made decisions inside the budgetary that were discretion improvement, whatever terminology you want to use. This is no different.”
It did pass with caveats, any money spent would have to be voted on by the full council and the mayor would have to sign off on it as well.
Finally, the cost of living adjustment at 5% for city employees was also approved tonight.
That pay raise will begin in October.
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