Contending they are "victims of an extortion scheme," a group of Rutherford County residents is taking legal action against the county government and the probation company it hired to collect fines on misdemeanor cases.
Contending they are "victims of an extortion scheme," a group of residents is taking legal action against Rutherford County and the probation company it hired to collect court fines on misdemeanor cases.
Filed Thursday in federal court in Nashville by Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law, the lawsuit says Providence Community Corrections and the county "have conspired to extract as much money as possible from misdemeanor probationers through a pattern of illegal and shocking behavior."
Rutherford County began contracting with PCC several years ago because it had a large number of outstanding fees it couldn't collect from people convicted of misdemeanors in General Sessions Court.
PCC collects millions in fines each year for Rutherford County, but it also charges fees to those on probation each time they come to the office for meetings or drug tests. The lawsuit contends many of those being forced to pay the fees are indigent or disabled.
"The crux of this scheme is a conspiracy to funnel misdemeanor probation cases in which court debts are owed to a private company, which then extorts money out of individuals who have no ability to pay court costs, let alone private fees," the lawsuit states.
In an emergency hearing Friday in federal court, a judge issued a temporary restraining order to prevent plaintiffs Fred Robinson and Steven Gibbs from being arrested. Other plaintiffs are listed as Cindy Rodriguez, Paula Pullum, Yolanda Carney, Jacqueline Brinkley and Curtis Johnson.
The lawsuit states PCC's goal is to "maximize" profits by acting as a "probation officer" to collect court debts and to assess additional fees and surcharges "through repeated continuous threats to arrest, revoke and imprison" people who fail to pay.
The plaintiffs have lost homes, jobs and cars and undergone "humiliating physical intrusions," and suffered severe injuries because of the enterprise, the lawsuit states. Some people have sold their plasma, gone without food and clothing for children and used disability checks to pay PCC's "supervision fees," the lawsuit contends.
Still, they have stayed on probation for years, facing threats that trap them "in a culture of fear and panic," the lawsuit states.
The civil rights action is being brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and Tennessee law to stop PCC and the county from continuing to run a "racketeering enterprise," it states.
The county's contract with PCC "gives birth to a creature previously unknown in American law: a supposedly neutral 'probation officer' who has a direct financial stake in every decision and outcome in any individual's probation case," the lawsuit states.
The contract violates notions of due process, neutrality and fairness, the lawsuit contends.
In addition to the county and PCC, the lawsuit names Jasmine Jackson, Briana Woodlee, Amanda Roberts, Tiara Smith, Kelly Haley, Amanda Schexnayder, Kayla Banks, Nisha Hyde and Kelly McCall, who work as "probation officers" for PCC at its West Main Street location in downtown Murfreesboro.
They are assigned to one or more of the plaintiffs and made either oral or written threats to "violate" their probation or have them jailed if they didn't pay fees to PCC, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit does not contain financial figures.
But Providence Community Corrections, a subsidiary of Providence Service Corp. based in Greenville, S.C., closed 7,191 cases and collected $4.1 million in fines during 2013 for Rutherford County. From 2009 through 2013, it closed 32,200 cases and collected $17.1 million for Rutherford County, according to figures provided to The Post last January by Sean Hollis, state director for PCC.
The probation office collected $3.1 million for Smyrna Municipal Court and $850,232 for Cannon County General Sessions and Circuit courts over during that five-year time frame.
PCC doesn't receive a fee from the county for its services. Instead, it charges offenders fees to generate revenue, $45 a month for regular supervision and $35 a month for diversion or retirement sentences, until they meet the court's conditions, according to Hollis.
The local probation company previously was called Maximus, but it sold its probation services to PCC in 2006.
Hollis could not be reached for comment for this article.
Providence Community Corrections sent out this statement: "Providence Community Corrections' mission is to encourage people to complete their probation successfully per the terms set by the courts, and while we have not yet been formally notified nor had to review this case, what we can say is that in each of the states we serve, we steadfastly comply with the laws governing the probation system."
Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess declined to comment because the matter is in litigation. He referred questions to the county attorney's office.
The PCC building is owned by Chancellor Howard Wilson and local attorney Chuck Ward through Middle Tennessee Investments. The building has been for sale since Wilson became chancellor in September 2014, he and Ward said, in an effort to avoid the appearance of impropriety.