DeSantis asks Florida Supreme Court to clarify whether felons must pay legal costs before having their voting rights restored

TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 3/7/19-The Florida Supreme Court building.COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

Former felons who have not paid all of their fines or restitution costs should not be allowed to vote, despite a new state constitutional amendment allowing felons to register if they have completed their sentences, a lawyer for Gov. Ron DeSantis argued Wednesday before the Florida Supreme Court.

The Republican governor has asked the state’s highest court for an advisory opinion on whether fines, restitution and other costs were included in the meaning of  “completion of all terms of sentence” that was part of Amendment 4, endorsed by 64.5 percent of Florida voters in 2018.

“The question the governor is asking is: Are all those debts to society included in all terms of a sentence? He would ask this court to find in the affirmative,” said Joe Jacquot, the governor’s general counsel.

But civil rights groups that support Amendment 4 argued that financial obligations, like restitution and fees, were not specifically cited in the amendment’s language and that preventing felons who cannot pay all their fines or fees would disenfranchise them as voters.

Anton Marino, a lawyer representing the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, asked the court to “conclude that it does not require repayment of all legal financial obligations because doing so would mean every person unable to pay is serving a life sentence.”

Marino cited a preliminary University of Florida study that showed more than four out of every five felons who are released from prison – excluding felons convicted of murder and sex offenses – have financial obligations that would prevent them from registering to vote under the governor’s argument.

“Adopting the governor’s interpretation leads to an absurd result that contravenes the chief purpose of the amendment ratified by the voters,” Marino said.

Marino came under sharp questioning from Justice Barbara Lagoa, who noted that the Florida ACLU put out a voters’ guide prior to the 2018 general election in which the organization argued Amendment 4 would restore voting rights to Floridians “who have completed the terms of their sentence including any probation, parole, fines or restitution.”

“This is what was told to voters of Florida,” Lagoa said.

Marino insisted the restitution and fines would not be considered part of the sentence unless they were “conditions of parole and probation” – and argued there is a distinction for former inmates who are unable to pay their financial obligations.

Elaborating on that point, Molly Danahy, a lawyer representing a group of former inmates, said blocking those felons from voting because of their failure to pay restitution and other costs may violate the U.S. Constitution.

One of her clients is Bonnie Raysor, a Palm Beach County woman who was addicted to opioids and served more than 1 1/2 years in prison for a series of drug-related felonies. Raysor will not be able to pay off her $4,260 in fees and fines until 2031, according to a brief filed with the court.

“If this court were to find that Amendment 4 requires the payment of (legal financial obligations), it would put the Florida Constitution directly conflict with the United States Constitution,” Danahy said.

Justice Robert Luck noted that if the court issues an advisory opinion, as requested by the governor, it would not be legally binding. Issues of constitutionality involving Amendment 4 would have to be raised and settled in subsequent lawsuits, he said.

The court will issue its opinion on the governor’s request later.

The case is part of a broader and complicated legal environment that also involves the federal courts and the Florida Legislature.

Last month, a federal judge in Tallahassee blocked an Amendment 4 implementing law that requires felons to pay their restitution, fees and fines before they can register to vote, although his ruling was specifically limited to a group of 17 former inmates who participated in the litigation.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that requiring felons to pay restitution and fines before registering to vote does raise questions of constitutionality. But he added that some of those questions can be settled by the Florida Supreme Court, through ongoing lawsuits, or by the Florida Legislature, which starts its annual session in January 2020.

Amendment 4 took effect in January 2019. Felons who had completed their sentences were allowed to register and some have already participated in municipal elections. Those with outstanding financial obligations were not denied the opportunity to register.

The Legislature passed the implementing bill in early May and it became law on July 1. The statute does allow the felons to petition a judge to either waive restitution or convert it into community service hours.

According to an analysis by University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith, the vast majority of felons who have registered since the passage of Amendment 4 owe some type of fine, fee or restitution.

Using information from the Department of Corrections and the state’s Offender-Based Information System, Smith found fewer than one in five individuals with a felony conviction other than murder or felony sexual offense are likely to be eligible to vote.

That means that across all 67 counties, the law would “effectively disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters who would have been eligible to vote in Florida under Amendment 4 had the Legislature not stepped in to dismantle it.”

As the Phoenix has previously reported, Florida is one of only eight states that denies felons who owe fines, fees or restitution from having their voting rights restored after completing their sentences.