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Hoover lawyer surprised at wait to repeal car law

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

News staff writer

Montevallo again Monday night repealed its version of the Safe Streets Act under which the city seized the car of a man caught driving without a license.

A Hoover lawyer says he is surprised Montevallo waited so long to repeal the law because he told officials in the 2000 fight for a client's car that the law was unconstitutional. "I told them what they were doing was clearly illegal," said lawyer Greg Case.

The City Council voted unanimously to repeal that section of the City Code during the Dec. 12 meeting, and, for good measure, again voted to repeal it Monday night due to a technical glitch in last month's action.

Case criticized the city's secrecy in handling an investigation of the Police Department's role in the seizures. With the tight lid kept on the investigation by Public Safety Director Tom Smitherman, Case said, people illegally deprived of their automobiles may not know they could seek compensation.

Smitherman has refused to answer any press questions about the investigation which, so far, has resulted in the resignation of Police Chief Steve Southerland and the firing of Patrol Sgt. Harvey Cook.

Smitherman was asked Monday night for a list of all cars confiscated by police since 2000 that were not returned to their owners. He insisted the request be submitted in writing and indicated he likely wouldn't provide the information because it is part of an ongoing investigation.

Although Case did eventually get his client's car back in the summer of 2000, the lawyer said the whole experience left him with a bad impression.

"When this case was going on, nobody else in the state was doing this," Case said. Montevallo was the only place in Alabama where a person could lose ownership of his automobile as a result of driving without a license, he said.

Cook disputed that on Wednesday, the night he was fired. "The state troopers are doing it, too, using the same law," he told The Birmingham News before the closed-door meeting in which the City Council opted to fire him. Cook and Southerland were suspended with pay Nov. 10. Southerland later resigned.

The government can seize property - such as a car or cash - because it is fruits of criminal enterprise. However, Case said, there is a specific procedure for doing that, and it requires the filing of a civil lawsuit.