HARPERSVILLE, ALABAMA – Just like that, the notorious municipal court of the Town of Harpersville is … gone.
It was there — likened as it was to a debtor’s prison — and then it went away.
Quietly. Quickly. Gone this week. Like a thief in the night.
But the scrutiny of that town — and of the private company paid to run a probation system that jails those who cannot pay protracted fees on traffic violations — will continue.
Shelby County Circuit Judge Hub Harrington made national news last month when he described in an order how Harpersville routinely denies citizens their rights.
This week he issued another order, a restraining order warning Harpersville, its judge and the probation company, Judicial Correction Services, not to throw anything away.
“It has come to the attention of the court that … the town of Harpersville has enacted an ordinance to affect the abolition of the Harpersville Municipal Court,” he wrote.
He ordered records and documents preserved, police records, traffic citations, warrants, complaints, internal and external correspondence, memos, messages notes, minutes, transcripts, emails, hard drives, on and on and on.
Not only that, but he made clear to the mayor and council, to Municipal Judge Larry Ward and Court Clerk Penny Hall, that they are personally responsible for making it happen. If not, they’ll “be held in contempt of court and face immediate incarceration.”
Same for Kevin Egan, chief marketing officer for JCS. If JCS fails to comply, Egan goes to jail.
Harpersville Mayor Theoangelo Perkins did not return calls, nor did Ward. Hall’s phone went straight to … dial tone.
JCS’s hired consultant, Steve Bradley, and JCS lawyer Wayne Morse, of Waldrep, Stewart & Kendrick, said Harpersville’s decision did not involve JCS.
But it’s all — again — extraordinary.
Faced with scrutiny, Harpersville took its ball and went home. As if it would all go away.
“I think the judge is legitimately concerned that there is some whitewashing going on,” said Kevin Garrison, a lawyer who brought the suit that opened all this up. “He’s making sure what happened doesn’t get swept under the rug.”
On one hand it is almost satisfying to see the Harpersville court go kaput.
It was long known as a place where tickets equaled cash, a speed trap where the limit on U.S. 280 changed six times in seven miles. It became, as Harrington described it in the previous order, a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.” All in the name of the law.
Which is why there’s no satisfaction watching Harpersville courts go away. There are too many questions. There is too much left to know.
But we do know a system that jails people for months because they can’t pay growing fees on traffic cases and misdemeanors is flawed.
A city that lets its courts become ad-hoc taxers is misguided. And one that allows private companies to become jail-threatening bill collectors is an affront to all that is right with this country.
Harrington knows that. It appears he will not let it happen. Not in Harpersville.
But Harpersville is not alone in out-sourcing justice. What of Birmingham? Or Hoover? What of Homewood, Pelham and so many more?
They may not have a Harrington looking over their shoulder. But if they care at all for justice, they need to take a long, hard look at themselves.