Hillsborough prosecutor’s changes could hurt Black, poor people, advocates say

Last year, Andrew Warren began a policy of not prosecuting many nonviolent misdemeanors. His successor has ended it.
New Hillsborough County State Attorney Susan Lopez, right, told staff last week that she was reversing a presumption of non-prosecution policy established by her ousted predecessor, Andrew Warren. Some experts and local leaders worry the change, which regards nonviolent misdemeanors, will disproportionately affect poor people and people of color.
New Hillsborough County State Attorney Susan Lopez, right, told staff last week that she was reversing a presumption of non-prosecution policy established by her ousted predecessor, Andrew Warren. Some experts and local leaders worry the change, which regards nonviolent misdemeanors, will disproportionately affect poor people and people of color. [ Times (left) / AP (right) ]
Published Aug. 17, 2022|Updated Aug. 20, 2022

In recent years, ousted Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren touted the number 7,000. That, he said, was about how many cases of driving with a suspended license were dismissed in his first term.

Around the time of his reelection in 2020, he told the Tampa Bay Times that those dismissals were his proudest achievement as Hillsborough’s top prosecutor.

A few months later, Warren’s office instituted a “presumption of non-prosecution” policy, which formalized a move away from prosecuting many suspended-license cases, as well as arrests for many other traffic misdemeanors, disorderly conduct and intoxication, panhandling, and prostitution.

That policy is no more: Susan S. Lopez, who recently was appointed as state attorney after Gov. Ron DeSantis removed Warren from office, told her staff last week that she would immediately rescind the practice. Some experts and local leaders fear the change will disproportionately affect the poor and people of color often caught up in such cases.

They’re often “crimes of poverty,” said Melba Pearson, of the Center for Administrative Justice at Florida International University, where the state attorney’s office began sharing data tied to Warren’s progressive policies during his tenure. (Warren, through a spokesperson, declined to comment for this story.)

Related: New Hillsborough state attorney reverses some of Andrew Warren’s policies

License suspensions often result from unpaid court fines. Other charges on the list, such as driving an unregistered vehicle or with an expired license, also may be tied to economic insecurity, Pearson said. But in a state without robust public transit, most people nevertheless need to drive to work.

“If you’re already in a community that’s overpoliced or highly policed, there’s a higher likelihood you’re going to get caught driving with your license suspended,” Pearson, a former deputy director of the ACLU of Florida, said. If that results in jail time, “now you’ve got to start over. Your housing now becomes unstable. If you’ve got a child and you’re a single parent, what’s going to happen to your child?”

It will take time to tell how the reversal will play out. Lopez said in a statement released Monday that her office “will evaluate every case law enforcement sends us and make a decision about whether to prosecute. Some cases will go forward. Some will not.” The office added a statement, not signed by Lopez, that it “has zero tolerance for racism of any kind.”

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister has criticized Warren’s non-prosecution practice. In a letter to Warren earlier this year, Chronister bemoaned a separate, newer policy of not prosecuting people for low-level offenses when stopped for bicycle or pedestrian citations.

“By unilaterally stating you are not going to prosecute, you are failing to hold individuals accountable for their actions, which only empowers them to commit additional crimes,” Chronister wrote.

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Related: Hillsborough’s sheriff and state attorney seemed in sync. What happened?

Warren countered that the policy called for charges when there’s “a direct threat to public safety.”

Warren’s main presumption of non-prosecution policy didn’t unilaterally prevent prosecutors from filing charges in the types of cases listed. If the accused were charged with another crime, for instance, or the charge constituted a violation of probation, prosecutors were allowed to proceed.

The policy laid out a sort of flow-chart for suspended-license cases, which encouraged prosecution in cases that also involved driving under the influence, or in which the license had been suspended for convictions of crimes such as fleeing law enforcement or vehicular homicide.

It’s relatively rare, though, for such cases to undergird license suspensions. A 2009 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that about a third of license suspensions nationwide were for non-driving reasons, such as unpaid child support or failure to maintain insurance, and suggested that law enforcement and courts reconsider their policies.

A more recent report by the Fines and Fees Justice Center found that, in 2017, nearly three-quarters of the 1.6 million license suspensions issued in Florida were for failure to pay traffic tickets, tolls or court costs. Its analysis, which included a case study of Hillsborough County, determined that Black people disproportionately faced license suspensions, and that suspensions were concentrated in zip codes with lower average incomes and more people of color.

There’s also some evidence that broad non-prosecution policies like Warren’s work. A working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in March 2021, the same month Warren’s policy went into effect, outlined the success in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, where non-prosecution of nonviolent misdemeanors reduced would-be defendants’ likelihood of being arrested again. It did not result in an increase in crime rates.

Bernice Powell Jackson, pastor at the First United Church of Tampa and co-president of the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, said Warren’s policies had made him an ally in her group’s effort to reduce misdemeanor arrests. That goal, she said, was driven by what congregations told the organization’s faith leaders they were most worried about: the ripple effects, like loss of housing and further financial instability.

Because some of those cases have to do with the non-payment of fines and fees, Jackson said, she’s especially worried about the timing of the change: Skyrocketing rents and other costs of living have made budgets even tighter for those already financially strapped.

“There are people who don’t have the money that maybe they had 3 or 4 years ago because their rent has gone up not just $100 a month but $500 or $600 a month,” she said. “We’re talking about the criminalization of poverty.”

Related: Gov. DeSantis removed him. What’s next in Andrew Warren’s fight for his job?

State Rep. Dianne Hart, a Democrat whose district covers much of Tampa, including its poorest and Blackest neighborhoods, said last week she hadn’t yet gotten to dig into Lopez’s changes. She has seen families of color in the communities she represents devastated by the long-term effects of nonviolent misdemeanor arrests, though, and she believed that Warren’s policies had been a step toward equity for minority residents.

“For far too long, we’re always the ones who have been targeted,” said Hart, who is Black. “All of those little things would set people back seriously financially as they’re trying to better themselves. (If) I have an illegal tag and you put me in jail for 30 days, did you help me? No, you hurt me even more.”

Staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Tampa Bay Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.