After Florida voters passed Amendment 4, voting rights suddenly became available to felons across the state. But a bill passed by lawmakers, which the Gov. Ron DeSantis intends to sign into law, added some criteria — including a requirement that people pay off any fines, fees or restitution.
Critics say the legislation unfairly hurts poor people. Courts assume that they will never collect the vast majority of the money they’re owed.
But it appears headed for law. If signed, it would take effect July 1.
Here are the new questions people will have to answer if they want to register to vote, and how to go about finding answers.
Is the crime covered by Amendment 4?
One of the early debates during the legislative session was about “murder” and “felony sex offenses.” For people convicted of either, Amendment 4 doesn’t matter. A convicted murderer or felony sex offender would still be ineligible to vote unless the state’s clemency board restored their rights.
Based on the bill passed by lawmakers, these are the specific felonies for which Amendment 4 doesn’t apply:
- Any felony that would force someone to become a registered sex offender
- Sexual misconduct by a psychotherapist (491.0112)
- Sexual cyberharassment (second offense) (784.049(3)(b))
- Female genital mutilation (794.08)
- Prostitution while knowing they were HIV-positive (796.08)
- Sexual conduct, a romantic relationship, or lewd conduct with a student as a school authority figure (800.101)
- Incest (826.04)
- Sale or distribution to minors or using minors in production of harmful materials (847.012)
- Abuse of a dead human body (872.06)
- Sexual misconduct with an inmate as an employee of a correctional or detention facility (944.35(3)(b)2, 951.221(1))
Have felons completed all terms of their sentence?
Once the bill becomes law, when someone is released from incarceration or probation, their release documents are supposed to spell out a checklist of all their remaining terms of sentence, including restitution, court fees and fines.
But it’s trickier for people whose crimes are behind them.
Simply being done with probation doesn’t mean everything is square. The court can end probation with an “unsuccessful termination.” That means that, even though there’s no more supervision by the state, the person didn’t meet every last requirement.
“That almost always means that you’ve done everything except pay off your fines and fees,” said Thomas Scherberger, spokesman for the Hillsborough County Clerk of Court.
First, officials recommend, check your case file online with your county court. Here are the links for Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties. Anyone can search by their full name to find their case number.
If your case is recent, the case file should be online. For cases at least 20 years old or more, you may need to request to view the case file at the courthouse.
No matter how many times someone has gone to court, only convicted felonies matter for voting rights.
“There are lot of fines and fees that are assessed for misdemeanors. This would only be felonies, and it would only be the felony they were convicted of,” Scherberger said. So when it comes to Amendment 4, don’t worry about paying off fees for any other cases.
When viewing the case file online, the “financial” section should show the remaining balance for fees and fines associated with the case. If the number isn’t $0, there is still money to pay.
Restitution (money that goes to support victims of a crime) can be more confusing.
Judges sometimes order that the restitution be paid through the court. Other times, however, it’s supposed to be paid directly to the victim. That’s entirely outside a clerk of court’s tracking system, according to Doug Bakke, the Hillsborough agency’s chief deputy for court operations.
One case file listed a Tampa woman’s balance at about $2,100. But a deeper in her file, it showed that a judge also assigned about $2,000 in restitution to be paid out in monthly installments.
That second amount isn’t tracked by the county. Felons in that situation should call Probation Services, under the Department of Corrections, to confirm if everything has been paid.
But there are still snags.
“If the victim dies before the restitution is made, I don’t know what they’re going to do,” Scherberger said.
A good first step, Bakke said, is to check with the clerk of court.
“They could call our office any day during the way during the week, or they could come into any customer service window,” he said. He said determining outstanding fees is the “bread and butter” of what court staff do.
The court staff can determine how much money is still owed and set up a payment plan.
What if felons can’t pay?
The bill allows for fees, fines or restitution to be waived by a judge, or converted to community service hours. But there’s one big problem: that system isn’t set up yet.
“That’s up in the air right now,” Bakke admitted.
Eventually, each county court would need to set up a way to file a form allowing someone to go before a judge to reconsider their case.
The judge could simply eliminate the fees or convert them to community service. Typically, that conversion works out to about $12 an hour, but that’s not set in stone.
Can felons get in trouble for registering if they are ineligible?
When anyone registers to vote, they sign a form affirming that they’re not a felon, or if they are, their rights have been restored. (The bill would have people check even more specific boxes once it goes into effect.)
State law says that “willfully” giving false information on the voter registration form is a third-degree felony. It’s a rarely-enforced crime, but it is on the books.
State prosecutors say as long as you think you’re eligible to vote, registering is not a crime.
“I’m not interested in prosecuting misunderstandings. I don’t think it would be right,” said Bernie McCabe, the state attorney for the 6th Circuit (Pinellas and Pasco counties).
“Normally in the law, it’s the prosecutor’s job to prove they willfully did something wrong. It’s not (the person’s) obligation to prove that they didn’t do something wrong.”
Andrew Warren, the state attorney for Hillsborough County and a vocal supporter of Amendment 4, said that being unsure wouldn’t be enough to charge somebody for a false voter registration form. Willfulness is a higher bar than recklessness or negligence.
“If they thought they were eligible but they weren’t, we would not charge them, that’s not a crime,” he said. “Willful means intentionally, with knowledge that they’re not allowed to do it.”
He said he wasn’t aware of any recent criminal charges for false voter registration. McCabe could remember only one, years ago, where someone registered and voted in two states in the same election cycle.
The bill flatly protects anybody who registered to vote since Jan. 8, 2019 (the first day the law took effect) and before July 1, 2019. Anyone who registers in that time cannot be criminally charged.
It will be the state’s job, as it is now, to examine new voter registration applications and determine if the person is eligible.