Nathan Mantooth is an unlikely candidate to be the face for a class action lawsuit against the private probation company Sentinel Offender Services, but he never thought he would find himself handcuffed and hauled off to jail.
A quiet, polite man intent on working hard and taking care of his family, Mantooth doesn’t want to be in the center of a contentious legal battle, but what happened to him wasn’t right, he said.
“I know I was driving badly, but I did everything I was supposed to do,” said Mantooth, whose trouble started with a traffic offense.
The 20-year-old is one of more than a dozen plaintiffs in lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of a private, for-profit company preforming a judicial function. The suits also accuse Sentinel employees of causing the false arrest and jailing of thousands of people.
A series of lawsuits were filed in late 2012, and on Sept. 16, a judge ruled that Mantooth and others should never have been arrested and jailed.
On March 18, Mantooth was driving with his 2-year-old daughter when he was stopped in Harlem for not wearing a seat belt. After the officer ran the normal check for outstanding warrants, a hit came back for a probation violation.
A warrant for Mantooth’s arrest was granted because a Sentinel probation officer told Richmond County State Court Judge Patricia Booker that he hadn’t complied with any of the conditions that Booker set when he pleaded guilty Jan. 23 to improper lane change.
The judge imposed a fine and surcharges of $420 and ordered him to complete the state-mandated safe-driving class and serve one year on probation. But Booker also said that once he paid his fine and completed his class, he wouldn’t have to report to probation.
That was important to Mantooth. He was already out $400 to $500 for the lawyer, the $420 fine and $75 for the class. If he could cut out a $35 monthly probation fee, he intended to do that.
Mantooth paid the fine before leaving the courthouse Jan. 23 and signed up for the class that afternoon. He completed the course Jan. 30, and the next day he took time off work to take his certificate to the Sentinel office.
Mantooth said he was told his information hadn’t been entered into the computer system yet. He said they wouldn’t make a copy of his certificate. On Feb. 15, he took more time off work to make a second visit to Sentinel. Again he was told he wasn’t in the computer yet.
On Feb. 27, the warrant for Mantooth’s arrest was issued because he allegedly hadn’t paid the fine or restitution, attended the class or reported to probation. However, Mantooth didn’t owe any restitution and his sentencing documents show he had already paid the fine.
AT LATER COURT HEARINGS, Sentinel attorneys contended that the company had no record that Mantooth came to its office. They said Sentinel had only a previous address for Mantooth and that it was his responsibility to provide current contact information.
Mantooth is adamant that he gave his new address to the court clerk and Sentinel when he paid his fine and that his lawyer also forwarded the information to Sentinel.
Donna Mantooth was incredulous when her son’s girlfriend called March 18 saying Nathan was being arrested. She insisted on talking to the officer, who said he had no choice. She went to the Richmond County jail to find out why her son had been arrested and how to get him out. It took all day and cost her $103 – not a fine, but the money Sentinel claimed it was owed for providing probation services to Mantooth.
“I was thinking (while in jail): What am I going to do? I got a 2-year-old and a girlfriend at home depending on me,” Nathan Mantooth said. He was worried about his job and missing work. “I didn’t know anything about what was going on.”
The Mantooth family aren’t people who sue, Donna Mantooth said, and they taught their sons to respect the law. What she wants the most is for it to have never happened, so that her son wouldn’t have a memory of being arrested in front of his child, she said.
Mantooth said he would like for the city to cancel its contract with Sentinel and hire a company that would follow the rules, or Georgia should go the way of other states and decriminalize traffic offenses.
He had to borrow the money to pay for ticket. He’s since paid it back.
IF THE CLASS ACTION SUIT is successful, the Mantooth family can recover the $103 Donna Mantooth paid to get her son out of jail. Many others will also get back any money paid to Sentinel after the expiration date of their original sentence.
Sentinel is appealing the Sept. 16 ruling by Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Craig, contending that he has misinterpreted the state statute governing private probation.
As Craig noted at a recent hearing, the Legislature might change the law on private probation companies next year. During the 2012-13 session, Sentinel lobbied for changes to allow private companies to seek the suspension of a probation sentence when a probation violation warrant is obtained.
According to the Private Probation Association of Georgia, during the last quarter of 2012, there were more than 254,000 people serving misdemeanor probation terms.
According to an application to renew its insurance, Sentinel’s revenue in the month of June 2012 was more than $5.58 million.
Craig’s ruling is limited to Richmond and Columbia counties. Other judges, including Superior Court judges in Cobb County, are following his lead in misdemeanor cases and recalling several hundred probation violation warrants.
In Richmond County, about 5,000 such warrants have been issued but haven’t been served. Craig’s ruling will keep those warrants from being enforced for anyone whose original sentence has expired. They will be among the people Mantooth will serve as the class representative.