Over 774,000 felons in Florida have some type of legal financial obligation related to their cases that could prevent them from being able to vote.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) – Florida’s byzantine patchwork of record-keeping prevents felons from learning about outstanding fines and fees before registering to vote, county election officials and felons testified this week as a closely watched federal voting rights trial enters its fourth day.
Attorneys for 17 plaintiffs with felony convictions hope to persuade Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle that SB 7066, a state law requiring felons to pay all restitution, fines and fees before they are eligible to vote, amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax.
Republican lawmakers passed the controversial measure last year, months after Florida voters overwhelming approved Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to most felons “after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.” The amendment itself did not mention restitution or fines.
Attorneys for Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, Secretary of State Laurel Lee and several supervisors of elections argue voters knew felons must pay all fines and fees before voting when they passed Amendment 4 and SB 7066 simply implements the constitutional amendment.
The case, Jones v. DeSantis, could have lasting implications for politics statewide and nationally. Florida’s elections typically have razor-thin margins. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump took the state with less than 120,000 votes.
More than 774,000 felons have some type of legal financial obligation, according to a study submitted to the court.
Yet Florida does not have a statewide database for elections officials to check if felons paid all their fines and restitution.
“We’re just butting our heads against the wall,” Mary Jane Arrington, the supervisor of elections for Osceola County, said of her office’s attempts to contact clerks of court and even collection agencies to determine if a potential voter paid his or her fines and fees.
“If there is any length of time since conviction, the record keeping is poor,” Arrington testified on Wednesday. “I think a lot of these people do not have the resources to find that information.”
Court officials themselves have trouble assessing fines, fees and restitution.
“The older the case, the less confidence I would have in the records,” said Douglas Bakke, the chief operating officer for the Hillsborough County Clerk of Court’s office.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the clerk of court’s office used a system of index cards and shoeboxes to record financial obligations, Bakke said. He described an instance a few weeks ago when the office had to pour through those shoeboxes to identify a paid fine from 30 years ago.
“The wrong case number was written on the index card,” he said on Wednesday.
When questioned by attorneys for the state, Bakke admitted more recent records are easier to find in clerk of courts’ databases.
But the online state court databases frequently have inconsistencies and errors, according to a Northwestern University professor’s study submitted to the court.
The study analyzed the court fees and fines of a random sample of 153 felons and found only five did not have discrepancies between county records and their sentencing documents.
“The state cannot provide consistent and reliable information as far as what debts are owed,” the author of the study, Traci Burch, told the court Wednesday. “Based on my experience, it can be very confusing on how much you owe. The process is so complicated, so burdensome. It’s very discouraging.”
When a Duval County judge sentenced Sheila Singleton in April 2011, her sentencing documents did not include restitution. It was not until July 2014 that the court sent her a letter ordering restitution of $12,110.81.
Singleton, one of the plaintiffs in the case, told the court she never received information about converting the debt to community service and her county does not offer payment plans.
Even if felons know how much they owe, they frequently cannot pay the debts, public defenders from two of Florida’s most populous counties told the court.
“If you’re not poor coming in, you’re definitely poor coming out,” said Carey Haughwout, a Palm Beach County public defender and president of the Florida Public Defender Association.
Haughwout testified on Tuesday that 80% of those charged with felonies are considered indigent. After release, she said, 90% of felons in the county are on payment plans.
Court costs have risen “exponentially,” Haughwout said. The fee for a public defender in Palm Beach County is $668, she said, and courts typically assess various other charges, from investigative fees to a $20 crime tip line trust fund.
Her counterpart in Miami-Dade County, Carlos Martinez, gave similar testimony. He estimated 75% of felony defendants in his county are considered indigent.
Curtis Bryant Jr., another plaintiff in the case, has not missed the $30 monthly payment on his fines in two years. If Bryant did miss a payment to the collection agency, which now holds the debt, the father of three would lose his driver’s license.
Bryant, who works at a Publix warehouse, currently owes more than $10,600.
Despite receiving a voter registration card last year, the 39-year-old resident of Orlando said he did not vote in the March presidential primary due to worries over SB 7066.
“You can get a charge and that’s something I can’t afford,” said Bryant, who was released from prison following drug convictions 11 years ago. “That’s not me anymore.”
He hopes to cast a vote in the upcoming mayoral election in November.
“I want my voice to be heard,” Bryant told the court on Thursday. “People can change, live a different life, do better and become a mentor to their community. I believe I have accomplished that.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, Campaign Legal Center and other criminal justice groups brought the case on behalf of the plaintiffs last summer.
In October, Judge Hinkle issued an injunction blocking SB 7066 for the 17 plaintiffs in the case. In February, the 11th Circuit upheld the injunction and later denied the state’s request for an en banc rehearing.
Earlier this month, Hinkle, a Bill Clinton appointee, approved a class action certification in the case and signaled his decision in the trial will apply to all affected felons in Florida, not just the 17 plaintiffs protected by the initial injunction.