TAMPA — The hallway buzzed with the sounds of anticipation: nervous foot taps, deep inhales and shuffled papers echoed from the tiled floors of the Edgecomb Courthouse annex in downtown Tampa, the home of Florida’s 13th Judicial Circuit Court.
When the doors to a second-floor courtroom swung open at 8:55 a.m., a rush of people poured in, filling seats until the room was full and a tall security guard blocked entry.
It was the first day of Operation Green Light, an annual event hosted by the Hillsborough County Clerk’s Office — working with other state and local agencies — to help people with traffic violations and suspended licenses pay off fines and get back on the road.
Similar events are held in each of Florida’s counties, but the format varies. In Hillsborough, cases are reviewed ahead of time, and qualifying candidates — those who are deemed not to be a threat to public safety — appear one-by-one before Judge Paul Jeske over three days, in hopes of having fines reduced, charges waived and the ability to drive restored.
Since 2017, at least 22 states have passed legislative reforms to eliminate or reduce license suspensions that result from unpaid fines. Florida is not one of them.
Florida drivers can get their license suspended or revoked for things like failure to appear in court, unpaid traffic tickets and unpaid court fees for unrelated charges.
Fines and late fees can rack up and result in thousands of dollars owed, pushing people further into the hole. And without the ability to legally drive, people are faced with difficult decisions, like driving on a suspended license and risking criminal charges or losing the ability to get to and from work.
“People may not know how to get out from under that heap of debt and the stress that is weighing on them,” said Hillsborough County Clerk of Courts Cindy Stuart. “This gives people a fresh start.”
Stuart said that more than 400 people registered for this year’s event, and expanded efforts were made to reach some of the county’s neediest communities — including mailer invitations, and publishing details in Spanish.
Among those who appeared before Jeske on Thursday morning was a single mother with an autistic son who lives below the poverty threshold. She said she would have to choose between paying for fines or food. A disabled man on a fixed income told the judge he was without money to pay the hundreds he owed, especially with housing costs on the rise.
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Seated on a bench in the hallway of the courthouse, waiting to be called on, Adreia Green bantered with easy energy with others hoping to get judicial relief.
Green, 35, had racked up traffic fines — some for unpaid tolls, another for running a red light.
She had worked to pay them off, but the cost of the tickets — in addition to the costs of supporting her two kids — made it difficult to keep up. The court eventually suspended her license.
Having moved to Tampa from Maryland, which doesn’t suspend licenses for unpaid fees, it took her by surprise.
“Everything in Florida trickles down to your license,” Green said. “You pay thousands of dollars for a car but you can’t drive it. It just sits there out front your house with the tires getting flat. Just going to the grocery store becomes a challenge.”
And Green said the trouble didn’t end there.
Initially unaware that her license had been suspended for the unpaid fine, Green continued to drive. When she was pulled over in her neighborhood — she said she’s not sure what for — she was cited for driving with a suspended license. The charge was criminal.
“I just received my insurance license in Florida but (that charge) actually stopped me from getting a new job,” Green said.
On Thursday, Green waited patiently for the opportunity to go before the judge. She hoped he would waive her fines, and prayed he’d consider dropping the charge.
As the time neared 11:30 a.m. — the end of the morning session — Green was finally called on. She was the second to last person to have her case heard.
Standing before Jeske, she explained falling behind on fees, that her employment had suffered and that she was hopeful to get back on her feet.
When he agreed to reduce her fees and drop the charge, she bowed her head and brought her hands together in front of her heart.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you so much.”