Unpaid Court Fees Could Throw A Wrench Into Restoration Of Voting Rights For Felons In Florida

Jan 3, 2019

With Amendment 4 going into effect in less than a week, there are parts of the process of restoring the voting rights for convicted felons that appear to have not yet been considered, said incoming Democratic state Senator Jason Pizzo. He said it could potentially throw a wrench into the rights restoration process.

“In the exuberance and excitement to pass Amendment 4, what was lost was the provision that you must complete your sentence, and sentence means any restitution you owed to an individual or an entity, or court costs that you had outstanding,” said Pizzo, a former Assistant State Attorney for Miami-Dade County.

Making the determination that court fees have been paid in full is left to the county Clerks of Courts offices, but those offices appear to not have been taking steps to prepare for the amendment going into effect, said Pizzo. Once implemented starting January 8, Amendment 4 will likely require those offices to validate court fees that have been paid off.

A letter written by Pizzo to Miami-Dade Clerk of Court Harvey Ruvin, dated December 18, 2018, brought up these issues. Court fees for old cases in particular -- stemming from felonies committed as far back as the 1970s or 60s -- are of particular concern, wrote Pizzo.

"Prior to Amendment 4, I can’t imagine it was contemplated that cases older than 5, 10 or even 15 years would see any substantial rush for payment on these costs,” he wrote.

In an interview, Pizzo said clerk of courts offices need to come up with a clear-cut determination for what fees are still expected to be paid, and what to do with debts that have been written off entirely or sold off to debt collectors for pennies on the dollar.

“I’m not arguing it’s an unfair cost to the ex-cons that want to get their rights restored, I’m just saying to be fair, this was like loaning somebody money 20 years ago and you never thought you were gonna get paid back,” said Pizzo. If anything, extremely old court fees that are paid moving forward should be written off as “found money” rather than used as a conditional basis for restoring voting rights, he said.

Requests for comment from Ruvin’s office did not receive any response. WLRN also contacted the Clerk of Court’s offices in Broward and Palm Beach Counties, but neither responded to specific inquiries about pending court fees.

Pizzo said clerks of court should come up with a statewide system for making sure each county has the same definitions for what fees are owed and what has been written off. If not, some counties might be more lenient and others could be more strict.

“It could present huge issues in terms of what’s fairness and what’s equitable,” said Pizzo. “On a county basis, on a state basis, and I’d like to see some continuity. You can’t have one system in Miami-Dade and a different system in Broward, it’s just unfair to each of these individuals.”