Mixed ruling in Sentinel lawsuit before GA Supreme Court

ATLANTA, GA (WFXG) - The Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled that a Georgia statute that allows state courts to contract with private probation companies for the supervision of misdemeanor probationers is constitutional.

The 41-page opinion released Monday partially affirms and partially reverses the judgments by Superior Court Judge Daniel Craig of the Augusta Judicial Circuit in the lawsuit brought by 13 misdemeanor probationers against Sentinel Offender Services, LLC, a private probation company.

The state's high court ruled that state courts and private probation companies are prohibited from lengthening a misdemeanor probationer's sentence beyond what was originally ordered. However, the ruling says judges are allowed to impose electronic monitoring on probationers.

The plaintiffs challenged the statute as unconstitutional because it allows employees of the private probation companies to act as officers of the court while owing a duty of loyalty to their for-profit employers. They also sued to recover monthly fees collected by Sentinel. They said Sentinel continued to collect fees past the original end dates of their probation periods.

The state Supreme Court ruled that Sentinel had no right to collect monthly fees from the Columbia County plaintiffs because the contract between the company and the courts was never approved by the Columbia County Board of Commissioners. The statute says that the "governing authority of the county" must approve a private probation services contract.

In Richmond County, where there was a valid contract between the courts and the private probation company, the high court agreed with the trial court that the plaintiffs have no right to recover fees paid to Sentinel during the original terms of their probation sentences.

The high court said the Richmond Count plaintiffs may have a right to recover fees paid to Sentinel after the expiration of their original sentences, but said those plaintiffs' cases must be considered separately by the trial court.

The high court didn't agree with the trial court on fees paid for electronic monitoring. The high court said "only where electronic monitoring was unlawfully imposed by the court on a misdemeanor probationer after the expiration of his or her original sentence would such fees be potentially recoverable." That will also have to be determined on a case-by-case basis by the trial court.

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