Florida Supreme Court Upholds ‘Fines and Fees’ Restriction for Ex-Felon Voting Rights

January 17, 2020by Steven Lemongello, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)
Desmond Meade, President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), holds a press conference in front of the Orange County Supervisor of Elections, on Monday, January 7, 2019. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Florida Supreme Court confirmed the status quo for ex-felons in Florida, ruling Thursday they must pay all fines, fees and restitution before their right to vote is restored under Amendment 4.

In an advisory opinion following a request from Gov. Ron DeSantis, the court ruled Amendment 4’s language stating that “all terms of sentence” needed to be completed before voting rights are restored “can only reasonably be understood to similarly encompass ‘the ultimate sanctions imposed,’ including ‘costs.’ … (Or) the phrase encompasses ‘all obligations’ or ‘all matters.’”

The ruling doesn’t change how Florida is currently enforcing both the amendment, passed by 65% of the voters in 2018, and its implementing bill passed in 2019 by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

DeSantis, who had asked the Supreme Court to issue an opinion on the amendment’s language, wrote on Twitter, “I am pleased that (the court) confirms that Amendment 4 requires fines, fees & restitution be paid to victims before their voting rights may be restored.

“Voting is a privilege that should not be taken lightly, and I am obligated to faithfully implement Amendment 4 as it is defined,” DeSantis wrote.

During the 2018 campaign for Amendment 4, proponents often acknowledged that fines and restitution could be considered part of “all terms” that had to be completed before a former felon’s rights were restored.

But as the 2019 legislative session began, language in early drafts of an implementing bill included additional civil and private fees onto what former felons would have to pay before being able to vote.

That additional language ended up not being included, but the controversy led some Amendment 4 proponents to argue even further in the other direction that fines or fees shouldn’t be included as part of “all terms.”

Several Democrats referred to the requirement as a “poll tax” banned by the Constitution.

Lawsuits by groups including the Florida League of Women Voters and the ACLU against the fines and fees requirement are ongoing, though Thursday’s ruling gives an indication of where the state Supreme Court stands.

A judge in October issued a limited ruling striking down the requirement, but it only applied to 17 plaintiffs, not all former felons.

Desmond Meade, the Orlando-based founder of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition who spearheaded Amendment 4’s passage, said his group was focused on the methods laid out in the bill to ask courts to waive fines and fees individually.

“We’ve all been operating under that understanding,” Meade said Thursday. “At the end of the day, we’ve all maintained that our number one focus is on people, and operating under the color of the law which is given to us, using whatever avenues the law provides us to use.”

Meade said his organization has raised about $300,000 and has paid out more than $260,000 of ex-felons’ fines and fees.

While some circuit courts in places such as Miami and Tampa have initiated what has been called “rocket dockets” to help expedite ex-felons getting their fines and fees waived by judges, Meade said his group was shying away from using that term.

“This process is a very serious process,” Meade said. “It’s not waiving responsibilities, it’s nothing haphazard. … The law gives people a sensible and lawful route to participate in this process.”

Meade said his group was in discussions with the officials of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which covers Orange and Osceola counties, about such an expedited process. A spokesperson for State Attorney Aramis Ayala didn’t return a request for comment.

Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga dissented in part from his colleagues, writing that while he agreed the “all terms” language included fines and fees, he didn’t agree that the language was “unambiguous” and had an “ordinary meaning that would have been understood by voters.”

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Orlando Sentinel staff writer Gray Rohrer contributed to this report.

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com

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