Moulton officer's firing upheld
Family, friends cause
uproar at hearing
By Kristen Bishop
email@example.com · 340-2443
MOULTON — Authorities almost had to physically remove friends and family of a Moulton police officer during a personnel board hearing Thursday to determine if the city had rightfully terminated his employment.
Though Octavius Hamilton's attorney and supporters created an uproar before the hearing, most left quietly after the board ruled in favor of the city.
The Moulton City Council fired Hamilton on April 9 after the officer allegedly bought prescription pills from a cooperating witness in the Midway Piggly Wiggly parking lot March 30.
The attorney general's office, which headed the investigation, charged Hamilton with possession of a controlled substance, and Moulton Police Chief Lyndon McWhorter immediately suspended him with pay.
A Lawrence County Drug Task Force agent reported during Thursday's hearing that investigators had taped the alleged transaction.
Hamilton's court date has not been set.
About 20 friends and relatives of Hamilton and nearly the entire Moulton Police Department were at the personnel board hearing.
The meeting had not been in session for more than two minutes before Hamilton's attorney, Sheryl Snodgrass-Caffey of Huntsville, argued that the hearing was unfair.
The three-member board voted to hold the hearing behind closed doors in order to preserve the "good name and character of the employee," and Snodgrass-Caffey immediately stood up and demanded that Hamilton's supporters be allowed to stay.
Hamilton's hearing before the City Council was not public, and Snodgrass-Caffey stormed out of the room saying "This is not a hearing. It's a lynching."
She said she wanted the personnel board hearing to be public.
"Because it's Hamilton's good name and character being discussed, he has a right to decide," she said. "It's to protect him, not the city, even though the city's good name and character may come up."
She accused city officials of having something to hide.
Personnel Board Chairman Billy Raines told her that the purpose of going into executive session was to protect the city and the personnel board.
"If the attorney brings something up that you later think hurt (Hamilton's case), we could later be accused of hurting his good name and character," he said.
After arguing in circles for nearly half an hour, Raines again told Snodgrass-Caffey that the board would go into executive session and asked her to have everyone leave the room. He eventually threatened to have Moulton police officers, who were standing at the back of the room, escort them out.
The crowd sat motionless when an officer stepped forward and asked them to leave and didn't budge until three more officers began to walk toward them.
About half exited the room while the rest remained seated. Snodgrass-Caffey could be heard from the hallway continuing to argue that the board's decision was unfair.
A few minutes later, a man, who later identified himself as Hamilton's brother, walked outside the room and yelled for everyone to come back inside.
"Octavius wants y'all in here. We can't always back down. Just make them arrest us all," he said.
The police had made no arrests when Raines eventually relented under the condition that Hamilton sign a waiver stating that he demanded to have a public hearing against the recommendation of the personnel board.
But that didn't appease Snodgrass-Caffey completely. She also insisted that the city's attorney, Skip Rogers, had never given her the names and addresses of the witnesses that would testify.
When the board disagreed with that complaint, she said it was unfair to fire Hamilton over charges of which he had not been convicted.
"The Constitution of the United States of America says a man is innocent until he is found guilty or he admits guilt," she said. "Neither of these things has happened."
Raines told her the board was meeting to determine if the city had followed proper procedures when firing Hamilton and were not there to convict him.
"I'm not a judge or a lawyer," he said.
"You don't have to be a judge or a lawyer; you just have to have common sense," she replied.
Rogers reasserted that the city had fired Hamilton for policy violations stemming from the arrest and that a conviction was not necessary to terminate his employment.
McWhorter and Drug Task Force agent Dennis Sharp testified before the personnel board.
During their testimonies, Snodgrass-Caffey repeatedly objected, claiming the drug charges were irrelevant because a jury had not yet convicted Hamilton.
She also asked the officers why other city employees had not been fired after being caught with drugs or convicted of a felony.
McWhorter said that he wasn't aware of any convicted felons working for the city and that none of the officers in his department had felony records.
Snodgrass-Caffey threatened to name names but stopped when Raines told her the information was irrelevant to Hamilton's case.
Sharp testified that he and a Lawrence County Sheriff's Department investigator were conducting surveillance in the parking lot when Hamilton allegedly bought the drugs.
A woman, who was later identified as Mary Anne (no last name given), and a 17-year-old girl were in the car with him when he drove up to the cooperating witness's vehicle, said Sharp.
Hamilton got in the passenger side of the witness' car and asked how much the pills were going to cost him and if they were authentic, said Sharp.
"(The witness) told him he could try one, and Octavius said 'That's all right. If it's not good, I'll come back next week and lock you up,' " said Sharp.
The officers also arrested Hamilton's two passengers but did not charge anyone with possessing illegal alcohol or contributing to a minor though Sharp said both girls smelled like they had been drinking.
Before the board made their decision, Snodgrass-Caffey threatened to take the city to court for wrongful termination.
It wouldn't be the first time Moulton's been to court for firing Hamilton.
The city fired him in 1995 for allegedly loitering on the job. After winning a wrongful termination and discrimination suit against the city, Hamilton returned to the Police Department in 1998.
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