In Judge Thomas Freeman's court, people sometimes spent years paying off fines and fees — even though misdemeanor probation is not supposed to last longer than 12 months.
The Pinellas County judge fashioned his own system called "the sentencing path," which could require people to stay under court supervision for much longer than a conventional sentence while they worked to pay their fines — with the threat of jail looming.
The judge would often put people in holding cells for an hour or more — with access to a phone — to encourage them to raise the money they owed.
Although courts can collect money from criminal defendants for fines and restitution, it's unconstitutional to have "debtors prisons" — jailing people simply because they don't have money.
"That's what it felt like that court was becoming," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, who has been criticizing Freeman's program for more than a year.
Earlier this month, an appeals court struck down the practice.
"A sentencing path is not a sanction recognized in Florida law," the appellate judges stated.
Dillinger is now asking if money can be refunded to defendants who paid fees past the time they should have been on probation.
Freeman defended his program Tuesday, saying his system was designed to give people extra chances so they didn't have to go to jail or lose their drivers' licenses because they couldn't pay fines by the normal deadline.
"I was trying to help people out, that's what I was trying to do," Freeman said.
Freeman said he did sometimes place people in a holding cell for an hour or two, where they were allowed to make phone calls. He said it often helped motivate them to find money to pay their obligations.
"It was amazing how many times people had someone in the hall or in the parking lot, or they actually had money on them," Freeman said.
Dillinger said the program unfairly hurt the poor.
"It used the threat of jail to collect money from the indigent, and that's why the clients went along with it," he said. "The clients were deathly afraid of going to jail for owing money."
Another problem is that once people started down the sentencing path, they didn't know how long it would last, said Ngozi Acholonu, an attorney for the Office of Regional Conflict Counsel, who filed the successful appeal.
"Every citizen needs to know what the possible sentences are for the crime that they're charged with."
For one of her clients who admitted violating probation on a reckless driving charge, Freeman delayed his sentencing hearing 25 times over a 20-month period.
A memo prepared by Senior Associate Public Defender Kandice Friesen raised other allegations about the program, including:
• People who agreed to "the sentencing path" may not have been properly informed that they could have an attorney present. Freeman says he did inform them.
• People were not told the sentencing path could stretch on for months or years.
Freeman, a county judge for more than 30 years, presides in a court division that handles people who violate their probation sentences for misdemeanor crimes.
People on probation are usually asked to perform certain tasks, such as paying money to the victims of their crimes, paying money for court costs, getting drug and alcohol treatment, performing community service and so on.
If someone doesn't follow those rules, the judge has a few options. One is to send the person to jail for violating probation.
Freeman said he decided to let people admit to violating probation and then set a date for their sentencing a few weeks in the future. If they continued to violate, he had the option to jail them.
But really, Freeman said, he was trying to get them to comply. Hopefully, people would show up for their sentencing hearings with proof of drug treatment and evidence of paying court costs and other fees. By staying current, they could keep their drivers' licenses because licenses can be suspended when fees aren't paid. Overall, he said this helped people keep their jobs, keep their licenses and keep feeding their families — all of which can be destroyed if someone gets thrown in jail for 30 days.
"I was trying to do this as an alternative to jailing people," Freeman said, and "I absolutely, truly believed that I was following the law."
He added, "I was getting feedback from defendants that was very positive."
Some defense attorneys liked the program, too.
"We would agree that it was well-intentioned," said defense attorney Richard Watts. "Ninety-nine percent of my clients took the sentencing path because the alternative was being locked up."
"The benefits far outweighed the disadvantages," said attorney Robert Love.
Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Thomas McGrady said he was "absolutely" sure Freeman was trying to help. But both judges said they would comply with the new ruling.
"It just means that we'll have to make all efforts possible to make sure we get cases through the system within the probation period," McGrady said.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232.