Marquis “Marq” Mitchell, 29, says he was ecstatic when he registered to vote for the first time in his life. It was back in March, in Broward County.
That was two months after Amendment 4 was making waves across Florida and the nation: The constitutional amendment passed by voters last fall had officially gone into effect — designed to automatically restore voting rights to felons.
Mitchell was a two-time felon first convicted for escaping from a Department of Juvenile Justice facility at the age of 16, and later found guilty of a third-degree felony battery charge when he was 21.
But he had turned his life around since his release several years ago.
He’s currently founder and president of Chainless Change, a Broward County based nonprofit that works on reducing recidivism by providing resources to those impacted by the criminal justice system.
But Mitchell’s excitement turned to dismay when he was contacted in May by the Miami-Dade County Clerk of the Courts. He was told that he owes more than $4,000 in fines and fees, with more than half of the costs related to his experience in the justice system when he was still a teenager.
Mitchell’s monetary situation is at the crux of legislation passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed into law on Friday of last week by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The governor’s action limits the number of felons who can automatically get voting rights restored, because the new law requires felons to first pay off any fines, fees or restitution owed to victims.
“It’s extremely disappointing. It is frustrating, and it is disheartening,” Mitchell said on Monday afternoon.
He’s one of more than a dozen individuals suing state officials in federal court over the matter.
Florida resident Kristopher Wrench, 42, also is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
He’s struggled with addiction and he’s been convicted of felony offenses related to that addiction, such as being in possession of controlled substances and driving with a suspended license.
Wrench has been in recovery since January 2012, and he registered to vote in May of this year. But Wrench owes about $3,000 in court costs and fines, meaning his chance to vote in next year’s elections is in serious question if he can’t pay that money off on time.
Mitchell, Wrench and other plaintiffs are named in the federal lawsuit that was filed in the Northern District of Florida by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the League of Women Voters of Florida, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
The groups claim that a felon’s right to vote is conditional –based on his or her wealth. And those who are unable to pay are penalized. The attorneys claim that’s a violation of the First Amendment and the 14th, 15th and 21st Amendments, as well as what’s called the “ex post facto” clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“Simply put, SB 7066 (the legislation signed by DeSantis) thwarts the will of these voters by basing voter restoration on the ability to pay financial obligations,” said Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“This law will disproportionately impact black Floridians with a felony conviction, who face the intersecting barriers of accessing jobs in a state with long-standing wealth and employment disparities. Because the Florida Legislature ignored these well-understood realities, SB 7066 must be stopped.”
The legislation signed by DeSantis does allow felons to petition a judge to waive fees or fines, or convert them to community service hours.
But the lawsuit says that remedy is “inadequate and ineffectual” for a number of reasons. One of them is that Florida courts have no jurisdiction to modify or terminate sentences of people with out-of-state or federal convictions. Another is that Florida criminal courts may not have the authority to waive financial obligations once those obligations are converted to civil liens.
While the Republican sponsors of the bill say it is only fair to require felons to have to pay off all their outstanding court costs before getting their voting rights back, that’s not the way the majority of the country handles this issue.
In late May, Nevada became the latest state to automatically grant the restoration of voting rights to felons – without any restrictions. In fact, 41 of the 50 states in the nation allow felons to vote while still owing fines, fees and/or restitution to their victims.
Meanwhile, Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren hopes to go before a judge in his jurisdiction to waive the court costs in favor of community service for a large number of cases. He is the only state attorney to announce such plans at this time.
Speaking to the Phoenix on Monday, Warren says it won’t be an easy task, because there’s no current infrastructure existing to collect all the data on who or how many felons convicted in Hillsborough County owe money to the court system.
He is not addressing cases where felons owe restitution to victims, and thus he says that the majority of the cases that he’s looking at revolve mostly around those who have drug and/or traffic offenses.
“We’re still figuring how to execute on what that strategy is going to be and the big variable is data,” he says. “We don’t know it until we see it.”
Warren also is calling on citizens who believe that they may owe fines or fees in Hillsborough to reach out to his office so they can research that information.
Warren says he was an early supporter of Amendment 4, and began having conversations with key stakeholders before the measure was even passed, contemplating how the Legislature would implement a bill on the issue.
“Our office was actively involved in talking with the Legislature as they were putting together the House and Senate bills – the different versions of them,” he recounted on Monday. “Once we realized we knew where the legislation was headed, we started to formulate a plan for doing this.”
The group responsible for getting Amendment 4 on the ballot — the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition — has created a website to allow the public to provide funds to help felons pay off their outstanding fines and/or fees so they can vote.
As of 4 p.m. Monday, the website had raised more than $77,000.