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Low-income women forced into illegal urine screens in traffic cases, suit says

A probation company illegally forced low-income women paying off traffic fines to take -- and pay for -- urine tests that were not ordered by a judge, a new lawsuit alleges.

The Southern Center for Human Rights filed a lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court accusing Sentinel Offender Services, a private probation provider, of forcing drug tests on a 62-year-old grandmother and a 45-year-old mother of nine who were both on probation in White County to pay off fines for "driving while unlicensed."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Read the AJC's in-depth story on Georgia's misdemeanor probation system.

"The bottom line is that we do not need to be making a nice, middle aged lady pee in a cup in front of a probation officer for driving while unlicensed," said Sarah Geraghty, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, who is representing the plaintiffs in the case.Sarah Geraghty is the managing attorney of the Impact Litigation Unit at the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Both plaintiffs were placed on probation because they could not afford to pay their fines on the day they went to court, Geraghty said.

 In Georgia, judges routinely use probation as a fine-collection system. It gives low-income people time to pay fines, but the system also increases the overall cost of a traffic case because monthly probation supervision fees are added on. 

An executive at Sentinel Offender Services told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday that the company had no immediate comment because he was not yet aware of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says that Sentinel probation officer Stacy McDowell-Black forced Rita Sanders Luse and Marianne Ligocki to urinate in cups so that they could be tested for drugs. The Southern Center alleged that the drug tests were ordered to generate money for the company.

The probation officer also threatened Luse, 62, with jail to make sure payments to Sentinel were her top priority, the Southern Center said. The lawsuit alleges that while she was on probation, Luse told Sentinel she did not have the money to make her monthly payment. She said she would receive a paycheck within a few days and asked for an extension. The Sentinel probation officer told Luse that if she did not come up with $140 within a few hours, she would be arrested, the lawsuit alleges. Worried about being jailed, Luse borrowed money from a relative to make the payment, the suit says.

A 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibits judges from revoking probation for a failure to pay if a defendant is indigent and the failure to pay is not willful.

Sentinel typically charged a $15 fee for each drug test, according to the lawsuit. Probation fees for the plaintiffs were $44 a month, which included a $9 fee that goes to the state for crime victims. Those charges are on top of what the women had to pay toward their court fines.

The lawsuit also questions Sentinel's handling of Ligocki's payments. The judge imposed a fine and surcharges that totaled  $313.02 on Ligocki for driving while unlicensed, the lawsuit said. Of the $490 she has paid so far, $131 has been applied to her fine, and Sentinel has kept $305 for its fees, the Southern Center said.

Ligocki is still on probation, according to the lawsuit.

"We have lost sight of the purpose of probation in this state," Geraghty told the AJC. "There are some cases in which it is appropriate to require a person on probation to take a drug test. These aren't those cases."

The lawsuit says that it found numerous instances in White County of people on probation being required to submit drug tests that had not been ordered by a judge. White County, which includes the cities of Cleveland and Helen, is in the north Georgia mountains.

This legal challenge is the latest in a series of lawsuits filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights on behalf of poor defendants who have been locked up or threatened with jail because they can't afford fines or bail amounts related to minor offenses. The Southern Center recently won a favorable ruling in a case challenging a Georgia city's jailing of a man accused of walking while intoxicated. 

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Georgia places more people on probation than any other state. 


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About the Author

Carrie Teegardin is on the investigative team. She is a graduate of Duke University and has won numerous national journalism awards.