Jury awards $175K in false imprisonment case against private probation company
Posted Feb 29, 2016 03:05 pm CST
An Augusta, Georgia, jury on Friday found that a private probation company repeatedly jailed a probationer for simply not being able to pay its fees. The jury awarded her $50,000, plus attorney fees of $125,000, the Augusta Chronicle reports.
The trial in Richmond County Superior Court was the first of more than a dozen Georgia cases brought against Sentinel Offender Services, which runs private probation operations in a number of states.
During the five-day trial, lawyers for Kathleen Hucks argued that Sentinel was interested only in money, not the rehabilitation of probationers.
For example, when Hucks tested positive for marijuana use during her probation, Sentinel did not get an arrest warrant for her. But later, when she didn’t pay Sentinel’s fee, she was jailed, attorney Jack Long of Augusta told the jury.
Long’s efforts against Sentinel and privatized probation in general were highlighted in an ABA Journal feature story in 2014.
That feature details how private probation companies offer to relieve courts of the burden of paying a staff of probation officers, and collect fees and fines for the courts. At the time, Georgia was one of more than a dozen states to use the service for misdemeanors. Jailing people for inability to pay fees or fines raised questions about a revival of debtors’ prisons.
Long said today in an interview with the ABA Journal that he begins another jury trial tomorrow, and intends to change one approach. Some members of the Hucks jury told lawyers after the verdict that they would have awarded more money to her, but feared it might bankrupt the probation officer, who was named as Sentinel’s co-defendant. Next time, Long said, he will seek a jury instruction on apportionment of damages that will assuage such concerns.
Hucks was sentenced in April 2006 to two years of probation for a DUI, driving on a revoked license and possession of marijuana. She was hospitalized repeatedly from 2006 to 2012 for seizures and a heart problem, according to testimony, the Augusta Chronicle previously reported.
When she was arrested in September 2012 after failing to pay her Sentinel monthly fee of nearly $300, Hucks’ husband took her medication to the jail, which refused to accept it. He then called Sentinel to seek her release and was told he would have to pay the fee, the Chronicle reported earlier in the trial.
Kathleen Hucks subsequently had a seizure in jail and spent nearly three weeks there before receiving a hearing with a judge, who ordered her release because her sentence had expired four years earlier, in 2008. Also in 2008, her sister had paid off the full $3,256 Hucks owed the court, but Sentinel employees testified that Hucks remained under Sentinel’s control because she had not completed a risk-reduction class or shown proof of drug and alcohol treatment, the Chronicle reported on another day of the trial.
Hucks testified that she was disabled and unable to work, but did not receive disability payments. Sentinel’s office manager in Augusta, Gina Childs, testified that probation offices had not asked Hucks about her ability to pay or suggested converting the probation fees to community service because “she never asked for it.”
Later, Sentinel co-owner Mark Contestabile said during cross-examination that responsibility rested on Hucks. “She could have had that changed at any time,” Contestabile said.