Defense lawyer: State high court ruling undermined Miami-Dade program restoring felons’ voting rights

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The public defender in Florida’s largest county testified Tuesday that a Florida Supreme Court opinion in January caused the county to shut down a “rocket docket” providing a convenient path for felons who have served their time to see their voting rights restored.

After the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018 and a subsequent law in 2019, Carlos Martinez, the public defender for Miami-Dade County, said his county set up a streamlined hearing process — informally known as a rocket docket — to have their voting rights restored.

He said local courts approved 35 orders modifying criminal sentences so that the former offenders could regain their voting rights. The New York Times reported on one of hearings here.

Martinez said that, under local sentencing procedures, court costs associated with felony cases — such as having the defendants pay a $100 prosecution fee, a $100 public defender fee, and a $50 application fee for indigency — were considered separate from the “four corners” of the sentencing document.

He said restitution to reimburse crime victims and fines were considered part of the sentencing, but that fines are rarely imposed in Miami-Dade, except for drug-trafficking cases.

That changed in January, Martinez said, when the Florida Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion holding that court costs must be considered part of the “all terms of sentence” language in the state constitutional amendment.

That meant they had to be paid before any sentence could be considered completed — a prerequisite for restoration of voting rights.

In testifying in a federal trial in which civil rights groups are challenging the 2019 law implementing Amendment 4, Martinez said he was surprised by the high court decision and the possibility it could put “in jeopardy” the felons who had their voting rights restored in Miami-Dade.

“They went through court process,” Martinez said. “We told them, ‘You’re in the clear,’ but the Florida Supreme Court, in an advisory opinion, now says, ‘Well, not exactly,’ because if those costs, fees, and fines were done at the time, in conjunction with an adjudication of guilt, then that becomes part of it. It did cause us to change our entire process.”

Martinez also testified about the lack of uniformity in felony sentencing procedures around the state. He noted although Miami-Dade rarely imposes fines as part of the sentence, nearly all felony sentencing cases in Leon County include a fine.

Martinez’s testimony came on the second day of a trial before U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle. Civil rights groups are challenging the 2019 law as an unconstitutional “wealth test” that makes the right to vote contingent on a felon’s ability to pay legal costs.

Lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee are defending the law, arguing that it complies with Amendment 4, which they say allows voting rights to be restored once a felon completes “all terms of sentence,” including the legal financial obligations.