This morning, Alec Karakatsanis and a team of Tennessee lawyers filed a class action civil rights debtors’ prison lawsuit in federal court in Nashville. The complaint alleges a systemic corruption, extortion, and racketeering conspiracy that has corrupted the basic delivery of justice in Rutherford County.

The Complaint is devastating in several ways.  For a sample of the powerful stories it contains, read pages 24 – 31 of the complaint (pdf) describing the experiences of Cindy Rodriquez.

The investigation, which will be described in an upcoming New York Times article, was assisted by several HLS students.

Here’s the Complaint’s Introduction.

This lawsuit is about constitutional violations and corruption in the Rutherford County probation supervision system. The Plaintiffs in this case are all people living in poverty who are victims of an extortion scheme in which the Defendants have conspired to extract as much money as possible from misdemeanor probationers through a pattern of illegal and shocking behavior. 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 private company, whose goal is to maximize its own profits, acts as a “probation officer” to collect those debts—as well as to assess and collect its own additional and substantial fees and surcharges—through repeated and continuous threats to arrest, revoke, and imprison individuals who are indigent and disabled if they do not pay.

As a result of this extortion enterprise, the Plaintiffs and others similarly situated have lost their housing, lost jobs, lost cars, undergone humiliating physical intrusions on their bodies, suffered severe medical injuries, sold their own blood plasma, sacrificed food and clothing for their vulnerable children, and/or diverted their low-income disability checks—all in order to pay private “supervision fees.” They have languished year after year on recurring terms of “user funded probation” under constant threats to their physical well-being, and they have been repeatedly jailed because of their poverty. This cycle of ever-increasing debts, threats, and imprisonment has left the Plaintiffs and thousands of people like them in Rutherford County trapped in a culture of fear and panic.

This civil rights action is brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), the United States Constitution, and Tennessee law to stop the Defendants from continuing to operate a racketeering enterprise that is extorting money from some of the most impoverished people in Rutherford County under constant threat of jail and to prevent the Defendants from misusing the probation supervision process for profit. The treatment of named Plaintiffs Cindy Rodriguez, Steven Gibbs, Paula Pullum, Yolanda Carney, Jacqueline Brinkley, Curtis Johnson, Fred Robinson, and each of the other Plaintiff Class members reveals systemic illegality perpetrated as a matter of ongoing design, policy, and practice by Rutherford County and Providence Community Corrections, Inc. (“PCC, Inc.”), the private company with whom the County has conspired.

By and through their attorneys and on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, the Plaintiffs seek in this civil rights action the vindication of their fundamental rights, compensation for the violations that they suffered, punitive damages to punish the Defendants and to deter similar misconduct in the future, and injunctive relief assuring that their rights will not be violated again. In the year 2015, these practices have no place in our society.

Download the Rodriguez Complaint.

Related posts here.