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Federal Judge Mulls Over Ankle-Monitoring Extortion Case

A federal judge will soon decide whether a whittled-down lawsuit over exorbitant ankle-monitoring fees in Alameda County will go to trial early next year.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge will soon decide whether a whittled-down lawsuit over exorbitant ankle-monitoring fees in Alameda County will go to trial early next year.

Robert Jackson and Kyser Wilson say they were threatened with jail time when they fell behind on their $25 daily payments to Leaders in Community Alternatives, a private company that provides probation services and electronic-ankle monitoring in Alameda County.

Jackson, a single father of three, was offered probation with ankle-monitoring after his wife died suddenly. He claims the fees drove him into homelessness, and that he was forced to send his children to live with his sister. Jackson testified in a deposition that an LCA case manager told him to “pay me or go to jail.”

Last December, U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled that the two men could proceed with their racketeering claim for extortion against the company for charging them to pay more than they could afford for the monitoring devices. But Alsup also scrapped their bid for class action status and dismissed their claims against the county, citing a lack of evidence that the county’s probation policies violated due process.

In court Thursday, LCA’s attorney Susan Coleman asked Alsup to toss the remaining claim. She said LCA was merely trying to collect rightfully-owed fees, and that the case manager’s statement was actually a legally-required advisement.

“These people— we can’t rely on their subjective interpretation of what a threat is,” Coleman said.

Alsup also seemed to doubt whether LCA staff tried to extort money from clients, as Jackson had also testified that he understood that the case manager could only report his delinquency to the court, and that a judge would decide whether he should be jailed. LCA is also entitled to the money, he said.

“So how can that be extortion?” Alsup asked.

Attorney Phil Telfeyan with Equal Justice Under Law said there is no question that Wilson and Jackson were threatened, as LCA case managers abused their position as authority figures to squeeze as much money as they could out of them.

"When an individual has authority over you and threatens you with jail— even if you know a judge will first see the case, it’s still a terrifying prospect,” he said, adding that state and federal laws protect his clients from being charged unreasonable fees and from being jailed for their inability to pay.

He said a jury should determine whether the parties are credible.

Alsup said he wanted to verify whether Wilson and Jackson had actually signed fee agreements with LCA recognizing late payments could result in more jail time, but Telfeyan pointed out that they had been omitted from the record.

When Coleman could not produce the signed agreements in court, Alsup said he would give her until Monday, Dec. 9 to file declarative proof that Wilson and Jackson willingly entered into contracts with LCA.

“I can’t go through life trying to fix people’s records when they do a bad job,” Alsup said.

Outside the courtroom, Telfeyan and his co-counsel Marissa Hatton said they did not think anything filed on LCA’s behalf would satisfy Alsup enough to win a motion for summary judgment. They said they had asked LCA multiple times for a copy of the signed contract verifying what Wilson and Jackson agreed to pay, but their requests have gone unanswered.

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