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SPLC can move forward with the claim that private probation company violated the constitutional rights of people in Gardendale, Alabama, federal appellate court rules

ATLANTA — The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that a previously dismissed lawsuit must be reinstated, providing the Southern Poverty Law Center the opportunity to further litigate its claim that a private probation company violated the constitutional right to due process of people on probation in Gardendale, Alabama, by running a profit-driven, private probation scheme that exploited people with lower incomes.

The court ruled in favor of the SPLC’s claims that, when accepting the plaintiffs’ allegations as true, Professional Probation Services, Inc. (PPS) violated the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment by unilaterally extending the duration of, increasing fines for and adding conditions to, probationary terms of people with lower incomes in Gardendale. The appellate court reversed the U. S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama's previous dismissal of SPLC’s claims that PPS’s actions were unconstitutional. 

“It is unconscionable that for-profit companies use the court system to try to squeeze money from people who can’t afford to pay fines and fees,” said Emily Early, senior staff attorney for the SPLC. “The Constitution guarantees every person a fair and impartial adjudication as well as supervision. Today, the court found that this company sabotaged that right by exploiting people on probation in Gardendale for their own financial gain.”

In what SPLC believes to be the first federal appellate decision of its kind, the court held that a private probation company is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity when it imposes enhancements to probation terms and, therefore, has a duty of neutrality under the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause. The Court ruled that PPS violated that duty of neutrality, based on the plaintiff’s alleged facts, by imposing probationary terms that created revenue for the company.

“This precedent-setting decision is not only a victory for our clients but a victory for every person being exploited by abusive probation and pretrial supervision companies across the country,” Early said.

SPLC first filed the lawsuit in 2017, describing how the city of Gardendale and Municipal Court Judge Kenneth Gomany required anyone who could not afford to pay their fines or court costs in full to be placed on probation with PPS. In addition to collecting the court-imposed fines and court costs, PPS also charged and collected a monthly service fee, typically $40, all of which went to PPS and none of which applied to their fines and costs. PPS routinely extended the length of time people were on probation when people fell behind on payments, collecting its fee first even when partial payments were made. SPLC filed the lawsuit on behalf of Catherine Regina Harper, Jennifer Essig, Shannon Jones, and a proposed class of people with similar probation experiences with PPS in Gardendale.

In 2018, Gardendale and its municipal court cut ties with PPS as part of a settlement in the case. The case against PPS remains active, leading to today’s ruling. SPLC will return to the U.S. District Court to argue the case against PPS.