TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WFLA) – After a day and a half of testimony, Federal Judge Robert Hinkle is considering whether or not to temporarily block the law requiring felons pay all fines, fees, and restitution before becoming eligible for voting rights restoration under Amendment 4.
Civil rights groups like the ACLU argued the state of Florida is violating the US Constitution by barring voting rights restoration to those who cannot afford to pay.
“The Supreme Court has said over and over again that that’s fundamental, you can’t make it dependent on whether or not you’re rich or poor,” said Orion Danjuma, an attorney with the ACLU.
Danjuma also pointed out patchwork record-keeping can make it incredibly difficult for many felons, like plaintiff Pastor Clifford Tyson, to determine what they owe in the first place.
“One paper says one thing, another one says another thing,” said Tyson.
Tyson needed help from attorneys to find he owes at least $50,000 from his past convictions.
“The system that’s in place is entirely broken,” said Danjuma.
The state argued Amendment 4 itself mandates the payment requirements and noted that it’s working to make it easier to determine eligibility.
The judge gave little indication of when or how he might rule, but he closed with a quote from President Ronald Regan: Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.
The words struck a chord with Pastor Tyson, who registered to vote before the law was passed, but would lose the right once again if the law stands.
“Because when I got released from prison, that was only the beginning, but it was like that statement took more shackles off of me and so that was very very personal,” said Tyson.
Judge Hinkle did drop one hint.
He said if either side believes their completely right in this case, they’re fooling themselves.
A trial date has been set for April, but Hinkle suggested multiple times throughout the hearing that he hopes state agencies and the Legislature can work to address many of the systematic issues surrounding felons voting rights restoration without waiting for the courts to force their hand.