Attorney John Long also requested a temporary restraining order in the suit filed on behalf of William Stephen Carter. He contends the only way to prevent further alleged injustice is to prevent arrests based on warrants Sentinel employees obtained.
Long pointed out that there are roughly 10,000 probation violation warrants in Richmond County. Some of those warrants have been open for years and are only served on individuals who, like Carter, are stopped for a traffic violation and arrested on the outstanding warrant.
Carter was stopped March 9 for speeding in Columbia County, according to the lawsuit. The officer took Carter to jail because of a warrant a Sentinel officer obtained two years earlier. The probation officer accused Carter of not reporting to his probation officer and owing money for court fines and probation fees.
Carter contends that he completed all the requirements of his two-year probation sentence for reckless driving and crossing the center line, including making all payments totaling $2,050 in court fines. He contends he also paid the $35 monthly probation fee until his probation officer told him he was being put in inactive status and no longer had to report to the office.
The term of Carter’s probation expired Dec. 8, 2011, but a Sentinel probation officer obtained not only the warrant for his arrest but a judge’s order that kept Carter’s sentence from expiring.
When arrested this month, Carter was taken to Columbia County jail and then transferred to the Richmond County jail. He couldn’t get out until he paid $655 that Sentinel claimed he owed. Carter was also informed that he would remain on probation until June 23, paying monthly probation fees to the private, for-profit company.
In Carter’s lawsuit and in the earlier lawsuits, Long has attacked the constitutionality of the state law that transferred responsibility for misdemeanor probation sentences from the state Department of Corrections to the individual counties. Local governments can provide probation services through a county office or contract with a private company. Long argues the law gives a judicial function to a private entity that can collect payments through incarceration.
Sentinel’s defense team has taken the position that it has always acted within its legal authority and that any probationer jailed are behind bars because of a judge’s order.
Although Sentinel defends its normal practice of requesting and receiving a judge’s order to suspend probationers’ sentences once warrants are obtained, last month the Georgia House of Representations began the process to change the state’s statutes governing private probation companies.
The bill would extend to the private, for-profit companies the full protection and power specifically given to state probation officers. Although it did not cross over to the Senate in time for a vote this year, it will be waiting next for the 2014 session.