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Felons, Lawyers Face ‘Tremendous Confusion’ On Voting Rights

Dolce Bastien (right) registers to vote after getting his rights restored in Miami.
Daniel Rivero
Dolce Bastien (right) registers to vote after getting his rights restored in Miami.

TALLAHASSEE --- Angel Sanchez lost his right to vote before he was old enough to even cast a ballot.

But after his release from prison in 2011, he did everything he could to turn his life around.

Sanchez made monthly payments toward $1,698 in court-ordered fees and costs assessed when he was convicted of felony charges as a 17-year-old. He used money orders to chip away at his debt when he was homeless.

He ultimately graduated from the University of Central Florida and went on to earn a law degree this spring from the University Miami. Along the way, he advocated for Amendment 4, a 2018 constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence, including parole or probation.”

Sanchez registered to vote on Jan. 8, 2019, the day the amendment --- approved by nearly two-thirds of Florida voters --- went into effect.

But the 38-year-old Miami man is now ensnared in what some lawyers call a “Kafkaesque nightmare,” unsure if he is eligible to vote more three years after his probation officer told Sanchez he had satisfied all of his financial burdens and he was released from supervision early.

Sanchez is not alone.

Florida legislators last year approved a law requiring felons to pay “legal financial obligations” --- fees, fines, costs and restitution --- associated with their convictions to be eligible to vote. Republican lawmakers said the requirement properly carried out the wording of the constitutional amendment. But backers of the amendment challenged the 2019 statute, saying that linking finances and voting rights amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax.”

After many twists and turns in the legal battle over the Legislature’s interpretation of the amendment, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is poised to hear arguments Tuesday in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that found the law unconstitutional.

The legal wrangling and incomplete or contradictory court records have erected at-times insurmountable barriers for Florida felons such as Sanchez who want to participate in one of the bedrock elements of democracy: voting.

“It has caused tremendous confusion among the lawyers and pro bono lawyers that have been trying to assist people for over a year. So you can only imagine the confusion of the people that are applying,” Miami-Dade County Public Defender Carlos Martinez told The News Service of Florida.

Sanchez works for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, one of the organizations that pushed Amendment 4 and is now raising money to help pay off felons’ financial obligations so they can vote.

As he was researching how much he dished out over the years --- his payments included collection-agency fees and interest ---Sanchez made a shocking discovery: The clerk’s office showed that he had an outstanding balance. He also uncovered another unwelcome surprise, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement fee of $298 that Sanchez believes was erroneously imposed.

“I said this cannot be real. I panicked. And I really was now afraid … because I thought, if it’s my word against the system, from my experience, people convicted of felonies are always the ones doubted,” Sanchez said in a phone interview. “I always have to be twice as good to hopefully deserve half as much. And when I get half, I need to be happy with that.”

After much digging, Sanchez discovered that one of his balances was referred to a collection agency that never contacted him. Probation officials, the clerk’s office and FDLE all directed him to other agencies during a labyrinthine pursuit to clear up what appeared to be an $800 balance on his record.

Dozens of lawyers throughout the state are working with organizations such as the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the Alliance for Safety and Justice and the League of Women Voters of Florida to help felons determine whether they have outstanding financial obligations and to clear up the debts so they can register to vote. Floridians have until Oct. 5 to register to vote in the November general election.

Miami-Dade County developed a process that allows judges to modify sentences and let people who are genuinely unable to pay their court-ordered financial obligations to have debts cleared for voting purposes only.

Attorney Carin Levine said she’s helped about 100 people apply for the modifications, and none were denied. But it hasn’t been easy.

“I would understand that anyone with or without a law degree would be completely confused,” Levine told the News Service.

For example, some people thought they were convicted felons but adjudications of guilt were withheld in their cases, “so they were eligible to vote the entire time but didn’t know,” she said.

It can be difficult to ascertain fees or costs assessed in decades-old cases, whose records can be on microfilm, Levine said, and it’s even more challenging to find out what payments were made, if any.

“It’s especially hard to determine where restitution goes to. And sometimes the public clerk website has different information on it than the internal website that the public doesn’t have access to. And once you miss a payment or you’re past due, 90 days later, they send it to a collection agency. And that collection agency immediately adds 40 percent plus interest and late fees,” she said.

Some people Levine has helped were juveniles when they were charged and convicted as adults, like Sanchez.

“They’ve never been able to vote their entire life and now they’re in their 70s and they might be able to vote for the very first time, which is amazing,” she said.

But not everyone is so fortunate.

“Sometimes we just can’t come up with an answer at all. Even the clerks don’t know. They show there was a fine entered but don’t show any payments,” Levine said.

Levine acknowledged that some felons who want to vote in this year’s elections are too daunted or baffled to attempt to register. Some may not owe money but are unaware they are eligible to vote without taking any action, she said.

Levine encouraged them not to give up hope.

Osvaldo Benitez, 63, is one of the people who benefited from Levine’s aid. Benitez, 63, was unable to pay $853 in fees and fees, but his sentence was modified. Benitez registered to vote following the passage of Amendment 4 but was told that he couldn’t vote after the 2019 law went into effect.

He called Levine “an angel from God” for her assistance in getting him eligible to vote. But in a phone interview last week, he said, “I’m still dubious” about whether he could lose his voting rights again.

“Of course. Haven’t they done it twice? What’s to stop them a third time? They obviously don’t want us to vote,” Benitez said.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has collected more than $2 million in donations to its “Fines and Fees” programs to help clear up felons’ court-ordered debt, with celebrities and high-profile athletes such as Michael Jordan, LeBron James and John Legend kicking in up to $1 million more, according to Desmond Meade, the organization’s president and executive director.

Sanchez, who voted in municipal elections before the 2019 law was passed, may remain on the sidelines in Tuesday’s primary elections. People risk committing a crime if they knowingly register to vote and they are ineligible.

Nearly a month after he began reaching out to state and local officials to clear up his case, Sanchez said he remains in limbo. He won’t risk voting until he’s sure his record is clear.

“I almost felt extorted,” he said. “I hate that I’m going through it but I’m glad that by going through it, I can shed light on the fact that even someone who’s entitled to vote right now is being worried and scared out of voting or exhausted out of voting. That shouldn’t be the case.”

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