Lawsuit alleges ankle monitoring practices are extortion

James Brooks left his job at the Port of Oakland after his mother was paralyzed by a catastrophic stroke in 2012. The 49-year-old former longshoreman is now her full-time caregiver, earning about minimum wage from the state’s In-Home Supportive Services program.

So when Brooks was arrested for DUI last year, he was desperate to avoid going to jail. “I have to take care of her,” he said in a recent interview. “There’s nobody else. I don’t have family support. I have to do this by myself.”

Brooks eventually reached a plea deal to serve his 120-day jail sentence through 58 days of home confinement, which included wearing an ankle bracelet to monitor his location and submitting to alcohol testing. He was ordered to go to Leaders in Community Alternatives (LCA), a private company that provides electronic monitoring and other law enforcement services in Alameda County and other jurisdictions throughout California.

He didn’t know that he’d end up paying heavily for his decision.

Brooks said the ankle monitor he had to wear was heavy, weighing 2 or 3 pounds, and frequently did not work properly. LCA would call him, sometimes as often as twice a week, telling him he had gone outside of his allowed area. But he said most of the time he was just washing dishes, as his kitchen sink was outside of the range of LCA’s modem. When that happened, he’d have to stop what he was doing and download the information from his monitor, which took about 10 minutes.

With his savings dwindling from court fees and other expenses — because his license was suspended he was taking Uber everywhere, like to pick up his mother’s prescriptions — Brooks sought answers about how much LCA’s services, including a GPS monitoring device and alcohol testing, was going to cost him. As he scrambled to keep up with payments by moving in with his mother and renting out his house as well as selling personal possessions, he wasn’t able to get any clear answers about his rate. He said his case manager, Jeanette Arguello-Ramos, simply told him, “that’s how we run things.”

She eventually told him his daily rate was $13, about $400 a month, but he ended up paying $1,629 for his 58-day sentence. (There is also an “enrollment fee” of $150.)

Now, Brooks is one of four plaintiffs who have filed a class-action lawsuit against LCA, its parent company SuperCom, and Alameda County. Equal Justice Under Law, a civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C., that filed the lawsuit in federal court on July 31, alleges that the county has allowed a private company to make profit-driven decisions about people’s freedom, denying them due process. The suit accuses LCA of extorting fees from poor people through threat of incarceration, an extortion scheme in violation of federal racketeering laws.

Specifically, Equal Justice Under Law alleges that people sentenced to electronic monitoring have the right to have a judge determine how much they’re able to pay for the service, but the company does not make people aware of this. Instead, Equal Justice Under Law alleges, the company intentionally misleads participants into thinking that they must come to an agreement with LCA regarding the terms of payment first, and that the agreement process is intentionally burdensome so that people pay a higher rate for as long as possible.

Without a reduction, the default rate is $25.50 per day, plus the $150 “enrollment fee.” People are billed twice a month and must pay two weeks in advance. So, they must initially pay $532.50, and then $382.50 every two weeks (depending on the length of the sentence). If payments are late, the company tells participants they are in violation of release terms and could be dropped from the program and sent to jail, according to Equal Justice Under Law.

A representative of LCA declined to comment on the suit. Alameda County counsel Donna Ziegler did not return a request for comment. But for Alameda County, which has paid more in civil rights cases than any other city or county in the Bay Area over the last three years, the suit could lead to yet another expensive payout and reforms to its sentencing and detention practices.

Equal Justice Under Law has filed lawsuits nationwide challenging the influence of private companies in criminal justice procedures and the fines and fees charged to criminal defendants, which critics have argued are an excessive burden on poor defendants. Founded in 2014, the organization is currently involved in one of several legal challenges to California’s money bail system, and in 2015 it sued Providence Community Corrections, a private probation company operating in Rutherford County, Tenn., also arguing that the company was in violation of federal racketeering laws. Last year, PCC and Rutherford County agreed to a $14.3 million settlement for about 27,000 probationers.

“Our review on these private companies is they’re making a lot of money on people being poor,” said Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Equal Justice Under Law. “LCA should really not be profiting on extortion.”

The suit against LCA and Alameda County seeks a ruling that LCA’s practices are illegal and compensation for anyone affected. If the suit is successful, thousands of people could be due compensation. LCA has provided electronic monitoring services for Alameda County since 2013, and the county disposes hundreds of thousands of criminal cases per year.

Meanwhile, SuperCom, which acquired LCA in 2016, has reported record revenue: up 66 percent to $33.3 million in 2017 compared to the year prior, including $11.3 million from electronic monitoring services, according to a company investor presentation from May. When SuperCom acquired LCA, it said in a press release that LCA had been profitable for the last three years and was expected to generate $9 million in revenue for 2015.

Many other jurisdictions have extensive oversight for private companies involved in criminal justice programs and either absorb the entire cost of electronic monitoring or have a fund to pay fees for indigent people, but not Alameda County, according to Marissa Hatton, a civil rights attorney with Equal Justice Under Law.

“As far as we can tell through extensive interviewing and research, Alameda County engages in no such oversight whatsoever, and LCA conducts its fee collection business unchecked,” Hatton said. “We know for certain that Alameda County has an entirely ‘offender-funded’ program, meaning the county does not contribute any funding to the electronic monitoring programs it sentences individuals to.” 

For people like Brooks, it seems hopeless to try and fight for a lower rate and easier to just pay whatever the company’s asking. “I never really got a full explanation for how they billed me and still to this day I don’t understand,” he said.

While Alameda County now faces the potentially costly lawsuit, neighboring San Francisco passed legislation to eliminate criminal justice administrative fees altogether in May. The city convened a task force in 2016 to study the impact of fines and fees and concluded in a report last year that the practice of charging administrative fees disproportionately impacted poor people and people of color. “These fines and fees can knock people down so hard they can’t get back up,” the report stated. “These financial penalties can make government a driver of inequality, not an equalizer.”