Attorneys for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency spoke last week about Baldwin County Commission President Chris Elliott’s legal agreeement with the agency, verifying his license suspension case was still pending until mid-February of this year and also explaining why the commissioner received a punishment of half the standard 90 days called for in state law.
ALEA attorneys Casey Bates and Michael Robinson answered questions last week about the agency’s handling of Elliott’s May 14 DUI arrest just after midnight in downtown Fairhope. Elliott refused a Breathalyzer examination after police say he ran a red light and ultimately wound up with a 45-day license suspension after months of legal wrangling with ALEA. Elliott has maintained he had a “couple of beers” at the Fairhope Rotary Steak Cook-Off, which ended more than two hours earlier.
Bates also confirmed Elliott’s legal case was indeed still pending when he told a group of Republican women and members of the media on Jan. 12 of this year that his legal problems had been settled “recently,” even though the matter wasn’t finalized until more than a month later. Elliott’s attorney, Rob Stankoski, sent a letter Feb. 23 demanding Lagniappe “retract” statements in its coverage of the event to the effect Elliott’s declaration had been false. Lagniappe stands by its reporting.
“The case was still pending until the final order was signed by the judge,” Bates said last week. “We had come to an agreement, but still not settled.”
Appointed Circuit Court Judge William A. Shashy of Montgomery signed the final order on Elliott’s suspension deal Feb. 15.
Bates also explained how reducing Elliott’s license suspension from 90 to 45 days was not something out of the ordinary for the agency.
“The director can reduce the standard offer to 45 days,” she said.
While both Bates and Robinson adamantly defended the reduction of Elliott’s suspension from the standard 90 days to 45 as being in no way representative of special treatment for the commissioner, a prominent local attorney who routinely handles DUI cases says such a reduced suspension is new to him.
“I’ve never seen a 45-day suspension,” said longtime Mobile attorney Buzz Jordan.
Jordan explained the standard way things work when someone refuses a Breathalyzer is the driver is issued a “yellow piece of paper” allowing them to drive for the next 45 days. At that point license suspension automatically begins. Jordan explained after 10 days the driver can request a hearing with ALEA. Typically, he said, whatever the arresting officer testifies is what determines punishment.
In Elliott’s case, his attorney said they were unable to get a hearing with ALEA before the commissioner’s license suspension was set to begin June 28. So Stankoski filed for an emergency stay with Baldwin County Circuit Judge Langston Floyd, and the stay was signed July 1. Jordan says the maneuver is very common.
“You can get the circuit court to stay the license suspension,” he said.
When Elliott’s final deal with ALEA was signed, it listed a license suspension running from Jan. 6 through Feb. 3, a total of just 29 days. Asked about the discrepancy, Bates wrote, “Mr. Elliott’s license was suspended from June 28, 2016, through July 14, 2016, then again from Jan. 6, 2017, and he was reissued a license on Feb. 3, 2017. The stay of the suspension was based upon a stay order signed by Judge. Once the stay order was received by ALEA’s legal division the stay was entered in the system.”
Robinson explained further during a phone conversation that even though Elliott had been granted a stay of his license suspension on July 1 by Judge Floyd, the papers had to be mailed to Montgomery and entered into ALEA’s system before the stay would officially go into effect in the agency’s system. He admitted the process is antiquated, but said in the eyes of the agency the license was suspended for those 16 days.
“His status in the system was suspended. If he’d been pulled over it would have shown as suspended in the system,” Robinson explained.
But the question of whether Elliott actually stopped driving from June 28 through July 14 is one ALEA could not answer. Although documents filed by Elliott’s attorney July 1 for the stay of Elliott’s license suspension indicate he was trying to keep the commissioner on the road at that time, Robinson said ALEA had no reason to ask during subsequent settlement negotiations if Elliott had indeed stopped driving for those 16 days because their system listed him as suspended.
“According to our records he was suspended,” Robinson said. “If he drove I can’t personally come down there and pull him over. I’m not law enforcement.”
In the July 1 filing to ask Judge Floyd for a stay, Stankoski asked for “emergency and ex parte relief.” He further wrote, “Based [on] the immediate and irreparable harm, Mr. Elliott will not be able to wait until the conclusion of the litigation prior to requesting a stay of the suspension.”
Jordan said in such a situation, he would certainly expect any of his clients with a signed stay order to be able to continue driving.
“Let’s pretend he had gotten stopped. He would have gotten a ticket, but I would argue that there was a stay and he could legally drive,” Jordan said. “I would suspect he would have driven since he had a stay.”
Elliott hung up when called to ask if he had driven or not during that time. He answered an email asking that question by referring the reporter to his attorney. Stankoski provided a copy of an email from Jessica K. Sanders of ALEA’s legal division sent to him Jan. 6 regarding the settlement agreement between Elliott and the agency as proof Elliott’s statements before the Republican women’s group were accurate. The order approving the agreement still was not signed by Judge Shashy until Feb. 15, which is when ALEA’s attorneys say Elliott’s case before the agency ended. Also, two hours after Sanders’ email was sent to Stankoski, his brother and business partner, Circuit Judge Clark Stankoski, issued an order of recusal from the case without reference to the alleged agreement.
“Pursuant to our settlement agreement, I have asked the DL [drivers license] unit to enter a 29-day suspension period. Your client will be eligible to get his license back on Feb. 3, 2017, upon payment of $275 reinstatement fee,” Sanders wrote to Stankoski.
Whether Elliott actually stopped driving during the 16 days ALEA credits him as having a suspended license was not answered by the commissioner. But whether he spent 29 days or 45 days off the road, Buzz Jordan says such a suspension reduction is not what he’s come to expect when defending those in trouble for DUI.
“The only thing I’m surprised at is the 45 days versus 90. I think if you look at the statute it says 90,” he said. “That’s not routine. Routine is 90.”