A Wayne County case involving a woman jailed for being unable to pay probation fees to a private company is back in U.S. District Court after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a ruling dismissing the case and ordered it back to the district court for reconsideration.
The case could have a significant impact on similar lawsuits based in Glynn County because private probation services operate here as well.
Christina Brinson states in her suit against Providence Community Corrections that its contract with Wayne County was void at the time of her arrest for driving under the influence because an automatic renewal clause does not relieve the necessity of future county commissions to re-approve the contract.
The complaint against PCC also lays out that state law before July 2015 did not authorize “imposing the cost of probation services solely against probationers,” and that being unemployed, Brinson should have only been subject to 10 percent of the fees, according to the contract, but that PCC has no incentive to notify the court of a probationer’s indigency.
“The inability of the named plaintiff to pay should have been known in that during the term of her probation the defendant petitioned for revocation of probation and the court ordered the named plaintiff to go to a drug treatment center … and the named plaintiff completed the Free Hart Women’s Life Recovery Program as shown by a copy of the certificate …,” according to the complaint.
That, and despite the sentence expired on two of the charges, PCC swore out a warrant and had Brinson arrested for nonpayment of fines.
“Neither the statute nor the form contracts used by this defendant contain adequate provisions and procedures to prevent incarceration of probationers on account of their indigency or to prevent the imprisonment of citizens because of failure to pay a debt owed to a private, for-profit corporation …,” according to the complaint.
As such, the complaint alleges the state law allowing these companies to operate violates the 5th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, it deprives people of due process and runs afoul of the Georgia state constitutional prohibition of imprisonment for debt.
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood ordered the case dismissed in March 2016 because on its face, the law does not violate due process at the federal or state level, nor does the practice of companies like PCC, on its face, condone imprisonment for debt.
The 11th Circuit vacated and remanded the case as according to the majority opinion, the court doubts federal jurisdiction over the claim, and has “serious doubts about whether subject-matter jurisdiction exists over this case.”
Subject-matter jurisdiction is the court’s authority to hear certain cases regarding certain subjects.
The court had more reservations, since PCC explained it stopped operating in Wayne County in April 2015, and Brinson filed her complaint in July 2015, and in the interim, Brinson emerged from both imprisonment and probation, which could render her claim moot.
In the end, the 11th Circuit decided there was not enough information on jurisdictional issues, there likely needs to be an amended complaint filed and further development of the factual record regarding jurisdiction.
Wood signed an order Tuesday setting a discovery schedule regarding subject-matter jurisdiction, with those documents due from both sides Dec. 9 and briefs due Dec. 24, and responses to those briefs due 10 days later.
A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Feb. 6, 2018.