As Kathleen Hucks’ attorney told the jury Friday, it was always about money for Sentinel Offender Services.
On Friday evening, the jury agreed that Hucks was a victim of false arrest and imprisonment when Sentinel repeatedly had her arrested for violating probation over a six-year period.
At the end of a five-day trial in Richmond County Superior Court, the jury deliberated for about two hours before returning a verdict in Hucks’ favor, awarding her $50,000 in damages and $125,000 in attorney fees. It did not find that Hucks should be awarded punitive damages.
Hucks is one of more than a dozen people who have filed suit against Sentinel in Richmond and Columbia counties, accusing the private probation company of using its ability to secure arrest warrants to raise its profits.
Hucks was jailed four times on probation violation warrants. Two were issued after her sentence had expired.
“This is not about money,” Hucks’ attorney Titus Nichols said in closing statements Friday. “This is about justice and accountability.”
He said that when he was a prosecutor, he could take action against someone who robbed people at gunpoint or with a pen, but that the system doesn’t provide any other way to go after Sentinel but through a civil action.
“Money is the only thing Sentinel understands,” Nichols said.
Defense attorney James Ellington argued that the only reason Hucks was jailed was because she didn’t follow the court-ordered conditions of her probation.
In April 2006, Hucks was sentenced in Columbia County Superior Court to two years of probation for driving under the influence, driving on a suspended or revoked license and possession of marijuana. Probation conditions include risk reduction and counseling for drug or alcohol abuse.
Ellington accused Hucks’ attorneys of picking at technicalities and searching for loopholes.
“I’m not going to chase down all these rabbits … that have been let loose in this courtroom,” he said.
It is true that Sentinel did not have a valid contract, but from 2000 through 2012, it performed all the duties required of probation officers for Columbia County Superior Court, Ellington said. Hucks would have gone to jail no matter which company provided probation services because she repeatedly violated the conditions of probation, he said.
All those reasons were pretext, argued Jack Long, another attorney for Hucks. When she tested positive for marijuana, Sentinel didn’t seek an arrest warrant, he said. Sentinel obtained arrest warrants when she didn’t pay, he said. Sentinel’s own documents prove the company only mentioned money as the way for Hucks to get out of jail.
“It’s all about money,” Long said.
When Hucks didn’t pay Sentinel its fees, she went to jail, he said.
“Being poor is not a crime,” Long argued.