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Eleventh Circuit: Private Probation Company With Financial Interest in its Sentencing Decisions Violates Due Process

The Court’s decision came in an appeal by plaintiffs Catherine Harper, Jennifer Essig, and Shannon Jones. They were placed on probation by the municipal court in Glendale, Alabama, which presides over misdemeanor and traffic offenses. When a defendant cannot pay a court-imposed fine on the spot, she is placed on probation.

For nearly two decades, the court outsourced probation services to PPS. It was compensated for its services “not by the City, but by sentenced offenders.” In particular, PPS collected $40 service fees from its supervisees for every month that they remained on probation.

At sentencing, the court signs an order of probation form that includes the “length of probation,” the “type of supervision,” and any “special conditions.” The judge also separately signs a “Sentence of Probation” that included blanks for each field pertaining to the duration of probation, the “total fine,” the payment schedule, and an unmarked list of more than a dozen possible probation conditions. That signed, blank form is given to PPS to complete.

PPS fills in the blanks in one or more ways. It extends the duration of probation, increases the fines that probationers owe, and adds substantive conditions of probation.

As to the individual plaintiffs, PPS doubled Harper’s probationary term from 12 to 24 months, increased Essig’s fine by $100, and imposed additional conditions on Jones. Harper was sent to jail for failing to comply with her probation.

The plaintiffs sued, alleging PPS violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause because its “skewed incentives defied the impartiality that is due to judicial actors and (to a lesser extent) prosecutors.” The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama dismissed the complaint, and the plaintiffs appealed.

The Eleventh Circuit began its analysis by discussing what judicial impartiality entails. It observed that at “a bare minimum, the Supreme Court has held that it forbids a judge from adjudicating a case in which he has ‘a direct, personal, substantial, pecuniary interest.’” Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510 (1927). It’s clear then that “a judge’s income can’t directly depend on how he decides matters before him,” the Court stated.

The Tumey Court invalidated a conviction and sentence where a mayor-judge had a direct pecuniary interest and “official motive to convict and graduate the fine to help the financial needs of the village.” In other words, the Due Process Clause forbids adjudication by a judge whose financial interests gives him a “possible temptation” to forsake his obligation of impartiality.

The Eleventh Circuit then turned to deciding whether the judicial-impartiality requirement applies to PPS. The Tumey Court instructed that the requirement applies to anyone acting in a “judicial or quasi-judicial capacity.” The term “quasi-judicial” refers to the performance of a “judicial” function by someone who isn’t technically a judge.

The Eleventh Circuit found PPS was performing a quasi-judicial function because it imposed binding sentence enhancements on probationers. As noted earlier, it increased the plaintiffs’ probationary lengths, the amount of the fine, and added substantive conditions. Those enhancements were final. Therefore, the Court held that “PPS undoubtedly performed a judicial function – and thus acted in a ‘quasi-judicial capacity….”

The Court rejected PPS’ argument that the municipal court’s pre-signed order negated such a finding. The Court said it has “already held that probation officers performed a judicial function when they set terms of probation, even though they too had pre-authorization from a judge. United States v. Heath, 419 F.3d 1312 (11th Cir. 2005).

Because PPS was performing a judicial function, it was bound by the “strict” impartiality requirement applicable to judges, according to the Court. “In the eyes of the law, it couldn’t determine probationary sentencing matters impartially,” the Court explained. Because PPS was acting in a quasi-judicial capacity and its revenue depended directly and materially on whether and how it made sentencing decisions, it was not acting impartially. Thus, the Court concluded that “the plaintiffs have adequately stated a claim under the Due Process Clause.”

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Related legal case

Harper v. Professional Probation Services, Inc.



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