TALLAHASSEE — A Miami judge on Friday tossed out a criminal case against one of 19 people accused by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ election fraud force of voting illegally in the 2020 election.
In the first legal challenge to DeSantis’ arrests, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch rejected the idea that the Office of Statewide Prosecutor could charge Robert Lee Wood, 56, with registering to vote and casting a ballot in the general election.
Wood was convicted of second-degree murder in 1991, making him ineligible to vote.
Statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox said in a statement Friday that the judge had an “incorrect analysis” and the decision would be appealed.
Hirsch did not consider whether Wood broke the law. Instead, while quoting Shakespeare, he weighed whether the statewide prosecutor could bring the charges at all.
Wood’s attorney, Larry Davis, argued that the statewide prosecutor did not have jurisdiction. The statewide prosecutor is restricted by law to prosecuting crimes, including voting, involving two or more judicial circuits. Those crimes are usually “complex, often large scale, organized criminal activity,” according to its website.
In the case of Wood and at least 18 other people DeSantis has accused of voting illegally in 2020, the statewide prosecutor said they committed crimes in multiple jurisdictions when they first registered to vote and then cast a ballot, each third-degree felonies carrying up to five years in prison.
When Wood signed up to vote, his registration form went to the Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections, who then forwarded that form to the Secretary of State’s office in Leon County to verify his eligibility — making it two jurisdictions, according to the statewide prosecutor.
The Secretary of State’s office, which reports to DeSantis, verified Wood’s eligibility through a quick search, and he was sent a voter ID card.
When Wood voted on Nov. 3, 2020, he did so in Miami-Dade, but his vote was certified in Leon County.
Statewide prosecutors argued that “it would be reasonably foreseeable to anyone” that registering to vote would automatically involve a government agency in Tallahassee.
They compared the situation to a drug dealer transporting drugs across multiple jurisdictions before selling them in a single county, or to an automotive “chop shop” in one county that used parts stolen in another county.
Wood’s attorney argued that the alleged criminal acts occurred in a single county — Miami-Dade — and Wood took no part in transferring the application or ballot somewhere else.
“Here the crime, if there was one, occurred exclusively in Miami,” Hirsch wrote. “The ‘related transaction’ — the merely ministerial transmission of completed forms to Tallahassee — was not a crime.”
Quoting Shakespeare, “His arms spread wider than a dragon’s wings,” Hirsch wrote that statewide prosecutors were spreading their reach beyond state statutes.
Hirsch speculated that under the Office of Statewide Prosecutor’s interpretation, the U.S. Postal Service that transported Wood’s paperwork could be committing a crime.
“For a crime to be prosecutable by (statewide prosecutors), it is that crime, and not its mere consequences or related activities, that must occur in two or more Florida jurisdictions,” Hirsch wrote.
Davis said he was “pleased, but not surprised” by the ruling.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which led the 2018 effort to allow Floridians with felony convictions to vote, praised the decision. The organization is coordinating the legal defense, pro bono, for the 19 people accused of voting illegally.
“This strengthens our resolve to continue to place people over politics and honor the commitment we made to the 1.4 million people impacted by Amendment 4, who should be enjoying the opportunity to fully participate in our democracy,” said Neil Volz, the organization’s deputy director.
The decision by Hirsch, who has drawn the ire of Republican officials in Tallahassee in the past, does not apply to the 18 other defendants facing voter fraud charges brought by DeSantis’ administration.
But if judges in other jurisdictions reach the same decision, it would pose a significant problem for DeSantis’ new Office of Election Crimes and Security, created by the Legislature this year to stamp out voter fraud.
Statewide prosecutors argued in Wood’s case that they can prosecute “all criminal cases dealing with voter registration and elections,” since “it is impossible to complete either the act of registering to vote or the act of participating in an election within a single circuit.”
Without statewide prosecutors, DeSantis’ administration would have to rely on local prosecutors, who have been more hesitant to bring charges.
State law says that a voter has to “willfully” commit the crime of registering and voting illegally — a significant legal hurdle.
In Lake County this year, for example, prosecutors declined to bring charges against six convicted sex offenders who voted in 2020.
“In all of the instances where sex offenders voted, each appear to have been encouraged to vote by various mailings and misinformation,” prosecutor Jonathan Olson wrote in a statement. “Each were given voter registration cards which would lead one to believe they could legally vote in the election.
“The evidence fails to show willful actions on a part of these individuals.”