Augusta woman sues Sentinel Offender Services

A woman jailed this summer on an arrest warrant that accused her of violating the conditions of her probation – a sentence that ended four years earlier – has filed suit against a locally operated private probation company.

Kathleen M. Hucks filed the civil lawsuit in Richmond County Superior Court on Monday against Sentinel Offender Services and two of its probation officers. She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s fees and a repayment of probation fees that she contends she was illegally forced to pay Sentinel.

According to the lawsuit, Hucks pleaded guilty in Columbia County Superior Court to misdemeanor charges of marijuana possession, driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license. On April 19, 2006, she was sentenced to two years’ probation, fined $2,000, and ordered to pay restitution and monthly probation fees. Judge James G. Blanchard Jr. terminated Hucks’ probation in August 2008 after she paid the fines, fees and restitution, according to court records.

In September 2010, however, a Sentinel probation officer petitioned for a warrant for Hucks’ arrest, alleging she was in violation of several terms of probation, including failure to pay fees owed to Sentinel.

On Sept. 3, 2012, Hucks was walking her dogs near her Augusta home when a sheriff’s deputy stopped and asked her for identification. Based on the outstanding probation violation warrant, she was arrested and held in jail without bond, the lawsuit alleges.

She wasn’t released until Sept. 20, after her husband paid Sentinel $157, the lawsuit contends.

Hucks’ lawsuit alleges Sentinel and its employees gave a judge false information in order to get the warrant for her arrest. It also contends the private probation company was responsible for her illegal incarceration.

Hucks’ attorney in the suit, John Long, contends that Sentinel probation officers obtained a probation violation warrant after Hucks’ probation term ended and that the
warrant was obtained after Sentinel’s contract with Columbia County expired.

In a response to Long’s Open Records request, the county clerk wrote that she couldn’t find any contract between Columbia County and Sentinel after 2006.

Hucks’ case is the second lawsuit Long has filed against Sentinel. He challenged the constitutionality of courts contracting with for-profit private companies to provide probation services for people convicted of misdemeanor crimes.

In the first case, filed in 2010, Long was successful in getting his client, a mentally disabled veteran, released from jail. Hills McGee spent nearly two weeks behind bars before a judge ordered his release.

A lawsuit seeking class-action status for McGee and others, though, was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge J. Randal Hall, who found McGee no longer had standing to challenge the constitutionality of private probation. Long appealed.

This month, the attorneys in the case presented oral arguments to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. A decision is pending.

 

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