A second piece of legislation was discussed in the State Legislature in the wake of allegations against a Jefferson County town's police department and administration.
The Alabama House of Representatives on Wednesday passed legislation to increase the transparency of the municipal courts. The bill was introduced in the wake of accusations that the small town of Brookside was using its police force and its municipal court to extort make money.
Municipal courts currently do not have to use the online public information system, Alacourt, where anyone interested in court matters can go to find out what happened in court.Only district and circuit courts must use the online resource. Municipalities don't have to make information available online at all.Finding out what has happened in municipal courts can be difficult as they do not have the same information-sharing requirements as the state courts have.
Senate Bill 203 (SB203) would change that. The bill is sponsored by State Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur). The legislation was carried on the floor of the House by State Rep. Mike Jones (R-Andalusia), who chairs the powerful House Rules Committee.
According to the fiscal note prepared by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Hill (R-Odenville), “Senate Bill 203 as amended and reported by the Committee on Judiciary would increase the obligations of the Administrative Office of Courts (AOC), according to AOC, by an estimated maximum of $2.7 million in fiscal year 2023 and maximum of $1.7 million in fiscal year 2024 and each fiscal year thereafter to: (1) collect and report certain municipal court and municipality data; and (2) provide each municipal court access to a court docketing and case management system, no later than January 1, 2025. This increase in AOC’s obligations could be partially offset by municipal court cost collections transferred to AOC for failure of a municipal court to submit the data required by this bill, as provided by this bill.
“In addition, this bill will increase the obligations of municipalities, including municipal courts authorized by law to collect fines and fees, by an undetermined amount to: (1) annually submit certain data on court cases, fines, fees, court expenditure data, and municipality budget information to AOC; and (2) have a financial audit performed by an independent certified public accountant or the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts on the revenue collected through fines and fees for municipal courts that fail to comply with the provisions of this bill, upon request by certain elected officials. This increase in municipal obligations could be offset by allowing the use of current revenues collected from fines and fees, including municipal corrections fund monies, to defray the costs to comply with the provisions of this bill, as provided by this bill.”
The bill also has accountability provisions regarding municipality compliance.
“Further, this bill could reduce revenues to municipalities and/or municipal courts by an undetermined amount dependent upon the amount of fees and fines collected by the court or municipality that would otherwise have remained in the court or municipality but, due to the provisions of this bill, would be forfeited by the municipal court/municipality for failure to comply with the reporting and subsequently transferred to AOC.
“In addition, this bill could increase the administrative obligations of the Department of Finance, by an undetermined amount, to digitize current municipal court reporting forms by January 1, 2023, and publish these reports on its website.”
There were some concerns from legislators that SB203 as introduced would have required municipal courts to join the Alacourt information system so that attorneys, journalists, and other interested Alabamians who purchase a subscription to the Alacourt system can see what courts, like Brookside are actually doing in regards to fines, fees, verdicts, citations, etc. They were concerned that this might represent a burden on the municipal courts.
State Rep. David Faulkner (R-Mountain Brook) brought an amendment to SB203 on the House floor.
The amendment pushed the deadline for the municipal courts to comply back to Jan. 1, 2025, and it gave them an option to use a system other than Alacourt.
“By January 1, 2025, all municipal courts shall use one of the following: (1) The state judicial information system approved for the Unified Judicial System by the Administrative Office of Courts. (2) A court information system in which the court software provider is properly integrated with the state judicial information system for reporting purposes. The court information system shall conform to adequate technical parameters for reporting case management and financial information data to the Administrative Office of Courts. Data shall be accepted by the Administrative Office of Courts at no cost to a municipality.”
State Rep. Tim Wadsworth (R-Arley) said there still needs to be a way for an attorney to access the data from his or her office without having to drive to the town in question and look at their records.
Faulkner said that the legislature should not “dictate to these cities what system they are going to use.”
The amendment was adopted on a 98 - 1 vote and SB203 as amended was passed 100 - 1.
Attorney General candidate and practicing Baldwin County Harry Still III told 1819 News that a software reporting system that is compatible with but separate from Alacourt does not exist. Still claimed that the bill would benefit the political insiders who own the company that manages the Alacourt system.
According to a 2020 story by Lagniappe Mobile, the Administrative Office of the Courts has a contract with On-Line Information Services Inc. (OLIS). OLIS is co-owned by Neal Buchman, Steven Olensky and former Alabama Lt. Gov. Steve Windom (R).
SB203 will now go back to the Alabama Senate for their consideration of House changes.
Thursday is day 29 of the 2022 Alabama Regular Legislative Session. Even though the regular session can last up to 30 days, Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) announced that Thursday will be the last day of the session.
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