ATLANTA – Thousands of Georgians given probation for minor offenses could be impacted by a case the Georgia Supreme Court hears arguments about Monday.
These were people whose probation was supervised by private companies before a 2015 law took effect setting the rules for misdemeanor probation.
The challenge from Glynn County resident Richard Lamar Anderson isn’t actually in the state courts. He filed suit against Sentinel Offender Services LLC in the U.S. District Court for the Southern Division of Georgia, but the federal judge asked the Supreme Court for advice.
Anderson was cited for driving with a suspended license May 6, 2009 where he was given a 12-months suspended sentence supervised by Sentinel and fined $500. By July, the company’s probation officer got an arrest warrant for him for failing to report and not paying his fines and supervisory fees.
After he was arrested in 2011 for the warrant, Anderson, was released quickly because, he says, the jailers realized his probation had expired nine months earlier. Then, he refused to report to a probation hearing, prompting another arrest.
His lawyer, James Yancey, argues neither arrest was valid because the 12 months of the sentence was over since, at the time, the General Assembly had enacted no law that gave judges the power to stop the clock, what lawyers call tolling the sentence.
“It was the legislature that determined how probation was run. It was the legislature that made the rules and made the regulations,” Yancey said.
Probation didn’t exist until a 1915 state law, but it only applied to felonies, not misdemeanors like Anderson was charged with.
Attorneys for Sentinel say in the absence of a specific law, judges can use simple logic to toll a sentence.
“If an offender does not comply with a sentence, then you have to stop the clock,” said Greg Hecht, one of Sentinel’s attorneys and a former legislator.
Justice David Nahmias asked Yancey about someone who escaped from prison and wasn’t recaptured until years after his original sentence should have been completed. Under what is known as common law, the accumulated precedence of all previous court decisions, a judge can stop the clock and send the escapee back to serve the rest of his term.
“Common law, as it often does, reflects common sense,” he said.
Why wouldn’t that apply to misdemeanor probations even though there wasn’t a specific state statute dealing with them until 2015, the justice asked.
Yancey said his reading of common law and recent court decisions are different.
“You can’t just make a decision based on ‘I’m going to do what I want to do.’ You have to go by what the statute said,” he answered.
Hecht warned that siding with Yancey would force judges across the state to release probation violators who didn’t go to their counseling sessions and could become repeat offenders, drunk drivers, wife beaters and such.
The court usually takes three or four months to reach a decision.
It’s not the first time a case about private probation has come before it. In 2014, the court ruled in another case against Sentinel that statutory law at the time didn’t allow sentences to be stopped for probation violations, but it didn’t say if it was legal under common law. That decision prompted the legislature to pass a comprehensive law the next year on misdemeanor probation and allowing private companies to supervise it, under specific guidelines.
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