Probationers Ask Panel for Second Chance to Sue Private Firm

ATLANTA (CN) — A lawyer for a proposed class of probationers asked an 11th Circuit panel Tuesday to overturn the dismissal of their lawsuit claiming Georgia’s private probation system is unconstitutional.

The Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Courthouse in Atlanta, home of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

In July 2015, Christina Brinson filed a class action in Brunswick federal court against Providence Community Corrections, a private, for-profit probation services company, on behalf of herself and others who paid probation-related fees to Providence in Georgia while the company had an allegedly invalid county contract.

The complaint alleged state law does not authorize private probation companies to charge and collect fees for services and claimed the state’s current probation system leaves probationers subject to arbitrary charges.

Brinson, who was on probation for pleading guilty to several misdemeanor offenses including DUI and reckless driving, asked the court to enter an order finding the statute authorizing Georgia’s private probation system unconstitutional.

Following her guilty plea, Brinson was referred to Providence, which was contracted by Wayne County. Her lawsuit demanded damages based on the fees she paid to Providence as part of her probationary requirements.

According to the district court’s ruling on Brinson’s complaint, Wayne County paid nothing to Providence. Providence made money by requiring probationers to pay costs and fees associated with services they received as part of their probation.

In August 2018, U.S. District Judge Lisa Wood dismissed the lawsuit for failure to state a claim that would invalidate the company’s contract, and denied Brinson’s motion to amend the complaint.

Wood also reaffirmed a 2016 order which found that although probation officers can use court processes to collect fees for their employer, judges do not stand to profit personally from case outcomes and there is no conflict of interest that would raise constitutional concerns.

Arguing on behalf of Brinson and the proposed class, attorney John Bell, Jr. of Bell & Brigham asked an 11th Circuit panel Tuesday to overturn the district court’s denial of their motion to amend the complaint.

“We are asking to put a constitutional-based dagger through the heart of the private, for-profit probation corporations,” Bell told the panel. “We should be given the chance to amend. The defeat to the complaint could be easily remedied in district court.”

Attorney Michael Baumrind of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, arguing on behalf of Providence, encouraged the panel to uphold the lower court’s ruling.

“This is just a money had and received claim. None of [Brinson’s] legal arguments void the contract” between the county and Providence, he said.

U.S. Circuit Judges Ed Carnes and Elizabeth Branch presided over Tuesday’s panel. U.S. Circuit Judge Gerald Tjoflat, who was also included in the panel, was not present in the courtroom for reasons unknown.

The judges did not indicate when they will reach a decision in the case.

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