Appeals court backs dismissing suit against probation firm



The federal appeals court in Atlanta has ruled in favor of Sentinel Offender Services in a civil lawsuit that claimed the private probation company was liable for damages under the civil racketeering law.

In an opinion published Thursday, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the federal judge in Augusta was correct in dismissing a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Hills McGee.

McGee was put on probation in October 2008 for misdemeanor offenses. In January 2010, a Richmond County State Court judge revoked his probation, finding he had not reported to the probation office and owed Sentinel $186.

The judge gave McGee two options: pay Sentinel and his probation would be terminated, or go to jail for two months.

McGee, who is a mental health patient, went to jail. A habeas corpus petition was filed on his behalf, and on Jan. 28, 2010, Judge Michael N. Annis ruled in his favor, finding McGee lacked the mental competence to waive his right to an attorney at the earlier hearing.

McGee’s misdemeanor convictions were then voided.

However, weeks later, Sentinel sent McGee a letter ordering him to report to the office and to pay $186. A second letter was sent April 1, 2010, and included notice that Sentinel would seek to have his probation revoked.

McGee’s civil lawsuit was filed in response and sought to have Sentinel held in criminal contempt for ignoring the ruling in the habeas petition. The complaint also sought class action for damages, alleging Sentinel engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity through the two letters it sent.

U.S. District Court Judge J. Randal Hall ruled in favor of Sentinel, finding McGee failed to show any evidence that Sentinel intended to commit a theft by sending the letters.

Three sworn statements by Sentinel employees asserted the letters were sent because of a clerical error.

The federal appeals court also found that the constitutional challenge of the use in private probation companies could not be raised because Georgia’s attorney general was not notified.

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