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Federal court: Alabama AG was wrong but he can’t be sued

The case began when the AG’s office improperly froze the bank account of Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway’s brother.

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A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that due to qualified immunity Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall could not be sued, despite a 2019 District Court judge’s ruling finding that Marshall’s office had improperly seized funds as part of a “politically or personally motivated” effort to “harass” the brother of an Alabama sheriff. 

Bruce Pettway, the brother of Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway, with whom Marshall has engaged in a months-long, public feud over alleged illegal gambling operations in the county, filed a federal complaint against Marshall, alleging that the AG’s office violated his constitutional rights by improperly seizing approximately $240,000.  

The AG’s Office has taken issue with Mark Pettway, alleging that he is turning a blind eye to illegal electronic bingo gambling operations happening in the county. Court records, which included financial records from Bruce Pettway’s various businesses, show that Bruce Pettway received at least some compensation from one of the bingo halls in question. 

With that evidence, Marshall obtained a warrant to seize the money, $15,500, deposited into one of Bruce Pettway’s bank accounts, which was tied to his brokerage firm. However, instead of simply seizing the money in question, Marshall froze the entire bank account, which contained approximately $240,000. 

Federal Judge Karon Bowdre ruled in Aug. 2019 that the action by Marshall’s office was “facially suspect,” and said that “the State’s actions against the Plaintiffs were politically or personally motivated, have been procedurally tainted, were all with the intent to harass Plaintiffs, and were all in bad faith.”

Following the ruling, Marshall amended the forfeiture filing to include only the $15,500 in question. 

By that time, though, Bruce Pettway’s attorneys, including former Federal Judge U.W. Clemon, said their client’s constitutional rights had been violated and he had been irreparably harmed by Marshall’s actions. To make their case, they pointed out that the AG’s Office never notified Bruce Pettway of the intended forfeiture action and set about freezing the bank account through a branch in Madison County – a county where Bruce Pettway had never worked or lived. 

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Additionally, Bruce Pettway claimed that the compensation from the company operating the bingo halls was for financial consulting services. 

The lawsuit was dismissed by a federal court earlier this year, and on Tuesday, the Court of Appeals for 11th Circuit upheld that decision. In its decision, the court said that while “We don’t make light of the alleged harm Pettway suffered because of the temporary seizure of his bank account … the district court did not err in dismissing his claims against Marshall because Marshall is entitled to qualified immunity.”

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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