In Gardendale, Alabama, municipal court defendants unable to pay court costs and fees in full were placed on probation with the company Private Probation Services (PPS), which charged defendants a $40 monthly fee for supervising their probation. These payments were unconstitutionally enforced through threats of jail, according to a Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit, which outlines how the arrangement violated the civil rights of the people under the private company’s supervision.
The lawsuit, which was filed against PPS, the city and Gardendale Municipal Court Judge Kenneth Gomany, describes how supervisees were expected to pay the monthly fee that subsidized the probation program that PPS provided free to the city, according to the lawsuit.
The SPLC also filed a judicial ethics complaint against the judge for delegating judicial functions to PPS without ensuring due process. Among other violations, the ethics complaint alleged that Gomany failed to protect other constitutional rights in his court, including the right to counsel for those who could not afford it and access to interpreters for those who did not speak English.
After the lawsuit and ethics complaint were filed, the Gardendale Municipal Court removed all defendants from the company’s supervision. The city and the judge entered into a settlement agreement. The terms included reforming court practices and providing defendants with payment plans for court costs and fines without charging an additional fee.
After the settlement with the city and the judge, claims for damages were pursued against PPS, the remaining defendant. Damages were sought on behalf of all people supervised by the company in Gardendale between December 2015 and November 2017, when PPS stopped operating in the city. The three named plaintiffs argued that PPS violated the due process rights of supervisees, who were entitled to a neutral decision-maker in their probation cases rather than a company that could recommend jail time for supervisees unable to pay the company’s fee.
The plaintiffs won a landmark victory in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court held that private corporations that perform judicial functions – such as determining sentencing conditions for people placed on probation – must act without a financial interest in those decisions.
After the appellate victory, a settlement was reached with PPS. The settlement came before the case could be certified as a class action and before any rulings on the evidence. The case was dismissed on Nov. 29, 2022, pursuant to the confidential settlement agreement.