Fight over probation fees ends

Company agrees to stop action against veteran

The private probation company that had attempted to collect fees from a mentally ill veteran has agreed to permanently cease its efforts.

U.S. District Court Judge J. Randal Hall issued a two-page order permanently extending a restraining order against Sentinel Offender Services in its attempts to collect from Hills McGee. Both sides agreed to the order.

A lawsuit by McGee, which seeks class-action status, was originally filed April 16 in Richmond County Superior Court and assigned to Judge Michael N. Annis. The suit followed a habeas petition filed in January and assigned to Annis.

Sentinel had both cases transferred to U.S. District Court after Annis issued a preliminary ruling on Jan. 16 that McGee's convictions for public drunkenness and obstruction of an officer were unconstitutional. Annis prohibited the company from further collection actions against the veteran.

McGee's attorneys, John B. Long, A. Montague Miller and John C. Bell Jr., are seeking to have McGee's case returned to Richmond County Superior Court, a decision Hall will make.

McGee's attorneys sought emergency action on his behalf earlier this month when Sentinel sent McGee letters on March 8 and April 1 accusing him of violating his probation by not paying $186 in supervision fees and not reporting to his probation officer. The second letter stated that a no-bond warrant for McGee's arrest could be issued if he failed to report to the private probation company the week of March 8.

At the time, Annis, in Richmond County Superior Court, had already ruled McGee's convictions and the sentences imposed for those misdemeanor crimes were unconstitutional. Annis ordered McGee freed from jail on Jan. 27. He had been behind bars for not paying Sentinel its supervision fees -- the basis for McGee's probation violation -- for nearly two weeks. Each day in jail cost county taxpayers nearly $50.

In his federal court order, Hall wrote that both sides agreed that Sentinel would not be held in contempt of court, as McGee's attorneys had requested.

In its answer to McGee's claims, Sentinel denies any wrongdoing to him or to any other client. It contends McGee isn't entitled to damages because neither he nor any other possible member of a class-action case suffered harm.

Sentinel states that at all times it has acted in good faith, and within the legal authority given to private probation companies by Georgia law.

Sentinel seeks to have McGee's case dismissed, class-action status denied, a declaration that the Georgia law on private probation companies is constitutional, and recovery of its attorney fees and court costs from McGee.

McGee -- whose only income is a $243 monthly Veterans Administration disability check -- was unable to knowingly enter a plea to the misdemeanor charges in October 2008, the judge ruled in January in Richmond County Superior Court.