Tampa, Fla. (NewsRadio WFLA) – The ink barely had time to dry as the new felon voting rights bill was signed into law before Florida’s NAACP conference and the League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit calling it unconstitutional and a “poll tax.”
The latest legal battle over the restoration of felon voting rights stemming from the passage of Amendment 4 in November, takes aim at what they say is another attempt to disenfranchise more than 1.4 million potential voters over the payment of outstanding fines, court costs, restitution and other fees.
The lawsuit tells the story of 10 convicted felons who have already registered to vote since Amendment Four legally took effect on January 8th, the intended result of the ballot initiative passed with 64.5 percent of Florida voters approving it.
However, all 10 may be in danger of losing their registration status because they all owe money related to their sentences – the central sticking point of the new law known as Senate Bill 7066.
While Amendment Four as it appeared on the ballot envisioned the term “completion of sentence” to include any sentence of prison, jail, community control (house arrest), probation and parole, there was debate during the legislative session as to whether it included the variety of so-called “Legal Financial Obligations” as reflected in the lawsuit.
That is where lawmakers like State Representative James Grant disagreed with others who opposed any legislation to enact Amendment Four.
The compromise in the end was the current framework that gives felons the following options to deal with money owed in order to register to vote as reflected in the statute:
- Payment in full
- Waiver by a victim or other “payee” that money is owed to (the lawsuit mentions potential debt collectors or insurance companies, despite not being reflected in the statute)
- File a motion asking the sentencing judge to convert costs to community service hours
- File a motion asking the sentencing judge to modify (change) the sentence to delete payment of fees, costs and fines from the original sentence
*NOTE: Under the current law, converting any obligations to a civil lien will NOT count towards as being “paid”
Lawmakers argued this would be a first step in creating structure to the restoration process, with room to adjust things down the road.
However, a federal judge may tear it all back down again before the whole process sinks into a muddy legal pit.
THE STORY BEHIND THE FELONS WHO WANT TO VOTE
Raquel Wright is a 44-year-old African-American woman who is a part-time legal assistant for the Special Counsel to the NAACP. She is also a former schoolteacher who taught before she was convicted of drug trafficking in 2011.
According to the lawsuit, she spent seven months in prison followed by 22 months of work release before she was free again. However, under Florida’s drug trafficking laws, she was also hit with a $50,000 mandatory fine which she has not paid.
Ms. Wright also registered to vote again after January 8th of this year, when Amendment Four went into effect.
Contrast her story to that of 62-year-old Karen Lecht of Miami, a full-time paralegal who in 2010 pleaded guilty to insurance and wire fraud, then cooperated with prosecutors in their investigation of 10 other defendants.
Ms. Lecht is also on the hook for $56 million in restitution which she owes “joint and severally,” in other words in equal shares with the other defendants, despite the lawsuit saying she had a minor role in the case.
On April 29, 2019, Ms. Lecht became a registered voter of Miami-Dade county.
Then there are stories like Jeff Gruver, a 33-year-old white male from Gainesville and Emory “Marq” Mitchell, a 29-year-old African-American male who works with several non-profits in Broward County to help those affected by the criminal justice system.
Mr. Gruver owes $801 in costs from a 2008 possession of cocaine conviction. He, like the others, registered to vote in February of this year and went on to vote in Gainesville’s March elections.
Mr. Mitchell was in and out of the juvenile justice system most of his early life before being convicted of felony battery while he was attending college. On March 9th, he registered to vote in Broward County.
Shortly thereafter he received a notice from the Miami-Dade county’s clerk’s office that said he owed $2,143 in court costs that he claims he did not know about.
While these and the six other felons all became registered voters again, lawmakers in Tallahassee were battling back and forth about how to create a law that better defined Amendment Four, including the costs issues.
However, registrations continued statewide as intended by that very same Amendment.
Here is why the NAACP and the League of Women Voters want to stop SB 7066 on behalf of these and the other 1.4 million felons.
The racial divide in the courts over felon voting rights played out in the last year of Governor Rick Scott’s administration as Federal Judge Mark Walker struck down the state’s clemency process as unconstitutional, specifically when it dealt with restoration of voting rights and racial discrimination.
Many of the same arguments apply in this case with the one decisive difference: SB 7066 an illegal “poll tax” that violates Amendment 24 of the United States Constitution.
The lawsuit claims forcing felons to pay outstanding financial court obligations violates the 14th Amendment’s concept of “fundamental fairness” under the protections of Due Process and Equal Protection clauses. It also addresses what they claim will be the burden of having to track down what obligations they even owe in order to figure out if they can even register to vote.
The reason for that is the lack of a current shared database for such information that would compile records from local clerks’ offices, jails and the Department of Corrections – a problem that will eventually be corrected under the new law, but not currently in place.
Article I of the Constitution may offer another avenue for felons as a catch-all argument that the law retroactively punishes citizens or imposes any type of sanction on citizens.
Even the provision that allows felons to return to court and ask a judge to delete fines and costs is challenged in the lawsuit. Calling it a “failsafe,” the NAACP and League of Women Voters claim that there is no constitutional guarantee that judges will uniformly honor the requests, clearing the way of voter registration.
While this may have seemed like a settled issue with the passage of Amendment Four, the legal showdown over felon voting rights is far from over…once again.