Federal Judge in Florida Rules in Favor of Ex-Felons, Fines Can’t Stop Their Vote

After many debates and a lengthy election process, ex-felons were given the right to vote on Jan. 8, 2019, under Amendment 4 of Florida’s Constitution. 

The amendment restores the voting rights of ex-convicts after the completion of their sentences or probation. It excludes those convicted of murder or any sexual offenses but covers those who were convicted of nonviolent crimes.

Earlier this year a bill was passed by the Republican-led Florida House, requiring that ex-convicts pay all of the fines, fees, and court costs that were incurred during their time in prison before they are allowed to vote. Many protested that this bill was another way of limiting the votes of ex-convicts. 

Voting rights groups sued the state legislature, one of those groups being the American Civil Liberties Union. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 10 individuals who lost their right to vote because of the bill. It was filed on June 28, 2019, immediately after the bill was signed into law by Gov. DeSantis. 

The lawsuit was filed on the basis that the new bill violates Amendments 14, 15 and 24 by creating poll taxes that would racially discriminate and disenfranchise those who are low-income.  The ACLU issued a statement that the state legislature “cannot legally affix a price tag to someone’s right to vote.” 

On Friday, Oct. 18, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle for the Northern District of Florida, ruled in favor of the ex-felons, temporarily blocking the bill.

He said that ex-felons must be allowed to vote even if they cannot pay back the fees incurred during their incarceration.  Although it is required that they pay back the fees eventually, their inability to pay should not restrict them from voting. 

Both sides—the attorneys representing the Amendment 4 advocates and those representing the Florida Legislature—share similar interpretations of the requirements of the amendment.

They both agree, according to the Tampa Bay Times article, that “all terms of the sentences” must be completed, which includes the paying back of financial debt by the felons. However, they disagree on the extent to which financial obligations limit the ability to vote by certain disadvantaged felons.

Hinkle ruled that “plaintiffs have a constitutional right to vote so long as the state’s only reason for denying the vote is failure to pay an amount the plaintiff is genuinely unable to pay.” 

Despite Hinkle’s decision favoring ex-felons, there may be significant implications for the plaintiffs in the case.

With his decision, no clear requirement was established for the state legislature to prove a lack of income. This means the Legislature has discretion in determining who is able to pay the fees. 

Although the decision is ambiguous and impermanent, advocates of Amendment 4 are praising Hinkle’s decision.

Leah C. Aden, Deputy Director of Litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said, “This decision is a win for our individual clients and a critical step towards ensuring that the voting rights of other people with felony convictions are not trampled on by Florida Officials,” according to an article posted to ACLU Florida’s website.

Since the decision is only a temporary block on the bill, the lawsuit will go to trial in April 2020, where a final decision will be reached. During this trial, the state may choose to challenge the block implemented by Hinkle. 

Rosemary McCoy, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said, “I lost all my money, I lost everything. I’m not going to let them take my right to vote.” 

Five million Floridians, about 65%, voted for Amendment 4’s goal of restoring basic civil liberties to ex-convicts. However, the amendment has fine print that may be manipulated to keep their vote limited going forward. 

Featured image: Tallahassee, Florida US Courthouse (Unmodified photo by: Ebyabe used under a Creative Commons License