SPLC Settles Federal Lawsuit in Gardendale

Settlement Agreement Resolves Claims Against City, Judge For Violating Rights Of Defendants Unable To Pay Court Debt

The city of Gardendale and its municipal court have cut ties with a private probation company that ran an illegal, profit-driven, private probation scheme in Gardendale by exploiting low-income defendants and violating their federal constitutional and state rights. The separation is part of the settlement of a federal, class-action lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that also required new policies and procedures to protect court defendants from abusive court-debt collection and probation practices, among other provisions.

The lawsuit, filed in October on behalf of Catherine Regina Harper and Jennifer Essig—two women who were victimized by the scheme—describes how the city 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 Professional Probation Services, Inc. (PPS).

In addition to collecting the court-imposed fines and court costs, PPS also charged and collected a monthly service fee, typically $40, from individuals on probation with them. All of the service fee amount went to PPS, and none of it was applied to the individuals’ fines and court costs. PPS controlled the length of time supervisees were on probation—extending the term of probation when they fell behind on payments—and collecting its fee first when partial payments were made.

When people could not afford to pay, PPS set more frequent “review” hearings, where the company informed the municipal court that a supervisee had not paid or had missed check-in appointments. This often resulted in an order of detention for several days. The settlement agreement resolves the legal claims against the city and Gomany. The claims filed against PPS are still open.

“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 for minor offenses,” said Sara Zampierin, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC. “The Constitution guarantees every citizen a fair and impartial adjudication. This company sabotaged that right, but our settlement with the city and the judge sets out new practices and procedures that, if followed, ensure that the court remains focused on justice rather than on money collection.”

The settlement prohibits the city and Gomany from entering into a new agreement for the provision of probation-related or money-collection-related services to the municipal court, where individuals are charged fees for those services.

The agreement also establishes new policies and procedures concerning court defendants’ right to counsel, the imposition and collection of fines and court costs, and revocation of probation and contempt practices, among other items. The new policies and procedures also require the court to consider a defendant’s ability to pay before imposing any fine or court costs as part of her sentence, and to offer alternatives to those it deems unable to pay the original monetary judgment payment, including reasonable payment plans, extensions of time to pay, or remissions or reductions of the amount owed. Additionally, the new policies and procedures prohibit the municipal court from jailing anyone solely due to an inability to pay, and allow incarceration only for willful non-payment.

Further, the Gardendale Municipal Court has rescinded all warrants issued for failure to appear at PPS review hearings since November 2015, and will apply a credit towards outstanding court balances for those who paid fees retained by PPS. The court will also host a week of amnesty that will allow people to clear any outstanding arrest warrants that have been issued against them for failure to appear.

joint motion dismissing the claims against Gomany and the city of Gardendale was filed with the U.S District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. The motion awaits final court approval.

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