On October 1, 2015, a group of poor Rutherford County, Tennessee residents who received sanctions for failing to pay probation fees, filed a class action suit against the county and Providence Community Corrections, a private contractor overseeing probation. The plaintiffs allege that: 1) the arrangement between PCC and Rutherford County constitutes racketeering; 2) PCC's personal financial interest in the outcome of judicial proceedings violates the plaintiffs' due process rights; 3) the contract between PCC and the county is void under Tennessee law; 4) PCC's threats to jail plaintiffs over nonpayment of debts is unduly harsh and punitive; 5) PCC's further actions of placing debts, issuing arrest warrants, and jailing individuals solely based on wealth status or nonpayment of debts is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment; and 8) a general abuse of the legal process.
The action is arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 18 U.S.C. § 1964(c) (RICO), and 28 U.S.C. § 2201, et seq., and the Fourth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment that Defendant’s conduct is unlawful, an injunction against enforcing the illegal policies, treble damages, and attorney’s fees.
Rutherford County entered into a contract with the private company PCC to provide probation services. According to the contract, PCC must earn its profit solely and directly from the people that it supervises by operating a “user funded” model in which probationers are ordered to pay, under threat of arrest and revocation of their probation, a variety of fees and surcharges to PCC as well as their court costs. The county does not provide any compensation for PCC's services.
If probationers cannot pay their fees in full, they are placed on “supervised probation.” This supervision agreement requires probationers to, among other things, pay additional supervision fees to PCC, obey all orders of PCC officers, and allow warrantless property searches. Any violation of these “conditions,” notwithstanding the individual's history or the nature of the offense, will result in PCC petitioning for their probation to be revoked and a warrant issuing for their arrest.
There are two primary civil rights contentions with this model. First, that the PCC does not consider whether the probationer is indigent, and second, that it is possible to be arrested and jailed solely for failure to pay a debt. In many cases, PCC officers did not inform eligible applicants about the available indigency waiver, or officers gave out misinformation that some fees had to be paid before an individual could apply for the indigency waiver. This led to indigent probationers failing to comply with the supervised probation conditions, which often resulted in jail time.
On December 17, 2015, Judge Kevin Sharp granted the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction. The injunction required Rutherford County vis a vis PCC to inquire into indigency whenever setting the amount of bond during supervised probation. It also mandated that an individual cannot serve jail time if the only probation violation is a nonpayment of funds. The judge called the Defendant’s actions towards the indigent plaintiffs an “extraordinary” injustice.
Defendants filed an appeal of the preliminary injunction one month later and further requested a stay of the order before a ruling on the appeal. As of February 12, 2016, the court has not ruled on Defendant's motion for stay.Dan Hofman - 02/18/2016
Dan Hofman - 02/24/2016