Sunday, July 15, 2018

PolitiFact: Fact-checking Samantha Bee on Florida felonies

Comedian Samantha Bee traveled to Florida, where she says "retirees and democracy go to die," to shed light on how the state makes it difficult for felons to regain the right to vote.

On her TBS show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on May 10, Bee spotlighted efforts by advocates to collect about 700,000 signatures to place a question on the 2018 ballot.

The amendment, which would have to pass by 60 percent to be enacted, calls to restore voting rights for felons automatically for those who have fully completed their sentences including parole or probation. That would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would still have to ask the Cabinet to restore their rights, a process that is currently slow and cumbersome.

In Florida, about 1.7 million felons have lost their right to vote.

Bee portrayed some of those felonies as not so serious.

"In Florida felonies can be things like buying weed, tampering with an odometer or disturbing a lobster trap," Bee said. "So basically spring break."

Bee's big point: Felons in Florida aren't just ax murderers.

We will fact-check if the crimes Bee cited are felonies. A spokesman for Bee declined to comment on the record.

Under the Florida Constitution, a convicted felon cannot vote, serve on a jury or hold public office until civil rights have been restored. The policy stems back to the Jim Crow era.

And that doesn't only apply to violent offenses, said Randall Berg of the Florida Justice Institute.

"Any felony conviction in Florida, no matter how small or seemingly trivial, results in the loss of your civil rights," Berg said.

There have been efforts on and off since the 1970s to make the process easier. But in 2011, Gov. Rick Scott and the members of the Florida Cabinet decided to make the process more cumbersome and set a minimum five-year waiting period.

Through April 1, about 2,600 felons have gotten their rights restored since 2011, while more than 10,000 cases are pending.

Bee cited three statutes that are felonies in Florida:

• 893.13 (2) (a) 2: This statute bans buying or possession with intent to sell drugs including marijuana, which is a third-degree felony. Possession of a small amount of cannabis — less than 20 grams — is a misdemeanor.

• 319.35 (1) (a) tampering with an odometer: "It is unlawful for any person knowingly to tamper with, adjust, alter, set back, disconnect, or fail to connect an odometer of a motor vehicle, or to cause any of the foregoing to occur to an odometer of a motor vehicle, so as to reflect a lower mileage than the motor vehicle has actually been driven . . . " This is a third-degree felony.

• 379.367 (4) disturbing a lobster trap: "It is unlawful for any person willfully to molest any spiny lobster traps, lines, or buoys belonging to another without permission of the license holder." This is a third-degree felony.

While we were unable to find any data on how many people had lost their rights based on particular statutes, we did obtain conviction data for the statutes Bee cited from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Here are the convictions for those offenses between 2012 and 2016, which make up a tiny slice of all felony convictions in that period:

• Buying or possessing marijuana: 398 felony convictions with the specification of marijuana.

• Messing with an odometer: one felony conviction

• Disturbing a lobster trap: four felony convictions

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, pointed to national data for 2006 that showed about 18 percent of felony convictions in state courts were for violent offenses. The majority of convictions were drug and property offenses.

"We tend to think of felonies as being represented in the prison population, but that's a skewed view that doesn't incorporate the more numerous people who are sentenced to some type of probation or community service," Mauer said.

Bee interviewed one person who opposes automatic restoration of rights for felons generally: Roger Clegg, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. He has called for states to address restoration on a case-by-case basis.

Clegg said that of course some crimes appear less serious than others, but the ones Bee cited are serious for the victims. For example, if someone sells a car that has 200,000 miles on it but has tampered with the odometer to show only 20,000 miles, that is cheating the buyer out of thousands of dollars.

"You can ask someone who makes his or her living as a lobster fisherman if it's a trivial matter if someone 'molests' (the statute's word) his or her traps," he said.

We rate this statement Mostly True.

Read more rulings at PolitiFact.com/florida.

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