by David Reutter
In a preliminary consent order, Sentinel Offender Services, a private probation company, agreed to stop its practice of drug testing probationers without court approval. The order was entered in a class-action case challenging Sentinel’s practices in a Georgia county that uses the company to manage its probation services. [See: PLN, May 2017, p.38; Jan. 2014, p.18].
The Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) filed the lawsuit on behalf of two women in White County who were placed on probation because they were unable to pay fines imposed for traffic violations – most of which are misdemeanor offenses in Georgia.
Rita Sanders Luse, 62, was fined $775.75 for driving with a suspended license. As she was unable to pay the fine upon sentencing, she was ordered to pay $44 per month in probation supervision fees for one year. Likewise, Marianne Ligocki, 45, pleaded guilty to the same charge and was placed on probation and fined $313.02.
Neither woman was ordered to submit to drug testing, but both were told by Sentinel probation officer Stacy McDowell-Black that they had to take drug tests or their probation could be revoked. Out of fear of going to jail, they signed a document that purportedly allowed the company to test their urine for controlled substances; they were charged $15 for each test.
At the time the suit was filed, Ligocki had paid $90 in drug testing fees. Of the $490 she paid in supervision fees over a six-month period, only $131 went towards her court fine; Sentinel kept $210 for its own fees. Luse paid $60 in fees for drug tests.
The complaint also claimed that Sentinel forced Luse, who lives on a limited income, to provide payment within a matter of hours or face immediate arrest. That threat came after she reported for a probation meeting without any money and said she would pay when she received her paycheck in a few days. To avoid being jailed, Luse rushed to obtain a loan from a relative.
On March 31, 2016, the parties agreed to a preliminary consent order which specified that Sentinel “shall not require probationers sentenced by the Probate Court of White County, Georgia to submit to drug screening unless the screening is specifically authorized by a written order of said Court.”
The company argued in other pleadings that Luse and Ligocki had freely agreed to undergo drug tests, and that the matter must be sent to a private arbitrator. The district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to certify the suit as a class-action on January 13, 2017 and the case subsequently settled.
The court granted final approval of the settlement in August 2017, which provided that Sentinel will pay $80,000 into a damages fund plus $25,000 in attorney fees and costs. Also, the company will abide by the terms of a final consent order that prohibits it from subjecting probationers to drug tests unless such testing is ordered by a court.
There are 276 class members in the case who will share in the damages; in total, they had received 964 drug tests from Sentinel. See: Luse v. Sentinel Offender Services, LLC, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ga.), Case No. 2:16-cv-00030-RWS.
This case demonstrates just one of several problems inherent in the profit-driven privatization of criminal justice-related services: “If there is a legitimate government interest in testing [a] probationer’s bodily fluids and charging them for it, an impartial judge, not a private company, should make that determination applying constitutional limitations,” noted SCHR attorney Sarah Geraghty.
The lawsuit was one of at least 15 federal suits filed against Sentinel in Georgia, Florida and California, according to the Augusta Chronicle, in addition to over a dozen cases filed in state court in several Georgia counties.
Sources: www.schr.org, http://chronicle.augusta.com
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Related legal case
Luse v. Sentinel Offender Services, LLC
|U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ga.), Case No. 2:16-cv-00030-RWS