Tuesday, November 25, 2014
The Georgia Supreme Court yesterday rejected claims by a group of plaintiffs that the state courts' use of private probation companies violated due process. At the same time, however, the court ruled that Georgia law and contract principles could limit the way those companies operate.
The plaintiffs in the case, a group of probationers, argued that the use of private probation companies violated due process, and that the company imposed excessive fees on them for unauthorized monitoring, testing, and tolling of their probation. The case illustrates the dangers and abuses that can come with hiring out a private company to conduct functions like probation.
The plaintiffs alleged first that Georgia's statute authorizing state courts to use private probation companies was facially invalid, because it them of liberty without due process of law. That's because the statute did not restrict the courts from arranging payment based on the length of a misdemeanant's probation and other probation-related services that the company provided (like monitoring and testing), creating a conflict of interest for the company. Moreover, plaintiffs claimed that courts relied on recommendations by private probation officers who had a pecuniary interest in the outcome.
The court rejected these claims:
While the supervision of probation is a function historically performed by state probation officers, the mere act of privatizing these services does not violate due process. Nothing on the face of the statute allows Sentinel or any other private probation company to deprivate an individual of his or her property or liberty without due process of law nor is there anything which authorizes the creation of a private probation system that is so fundamentally unfair that it fails to comport with our notions of due process. . . . As found by the trial court, most of the injuries alleged by the plaintiffs in these cases occurred not because of Sentinel's compliance with the restrictions placed upon it by the private probation statutory framework, but becasue of Sentinel's failure or the failure of its employees to abide by the limited statutory authority granted.
The court also rejected the plaintiffs' claims that the statute allowed their imprisonment for debt, in violation of the Georgia Constitution, and that a court couldn't order, and a private company couldn't use, electronic monitoring devices.
But the court ruled as a matter of statutory interpretation that Georgia law did not allow for the tolling of misdemeanor probationers' sentences. That's because misdemeanor sentences are set by statute at one year, at which point jurisdiction over the defendant ceases, and there's no statutory authority to deviate from that rule.
Finally, the court ruled, based on Sentinel's contracts, that some of the plaintiffs could recover fees paid to Sentinel for probation services during their original probation, and that others could recover fees paid after the expiration of the term of their original sentences or for electronic monitoring.