This post first appeared in the Ocala Star-Banner.
A homeless Ocala man, who on three separate occasions was assessed more than $250 in court costs for sleeping outdoors and had his driver’s license suspended for non-payment, has won a reduction in those costs and return of his driving privileges. The Marion County clerk of courts has also agreed that future violators of the local “open lodging” ordinance or other municipal ordinances should not lose their driver’s licenses for nonpayment of court costs.
That opinion is in accord with the law and also makes perfect sense. Given the woeful state of mass transit in Florida, suspending a license makes it much harder for a person to find and keep a job and pay off any debts. If you want to ensure that someone stays homeless, leaving them without transportation is a good way to start.
The Ocala case highlights two separate issues that need fixing in our state. One is the criminalization of homelessness. The other is the penchant Florida has for suspending driving privileges for offenses that have absolutely nothing to do with driving. In a time of low unemployment, when employers urgently need workers, does anyone think that’s a good idea?
On July 18, 2016, Anthony Cummings, 36, was arrested for sleeping outdoors. He was charged with a violation of the City of Ocala “open lodging” ordinance. Cummings pleaded guilty, was sentenced to five days in jail and assessed $275.50 in criminal court costs. It was his third such offense in four years. For the two earlier cases, he had been assessed $548.50 and, therefore, owed a total of $824.
Cummings could not pay the costs and on Feb. 10, 2017, the clerk sent notice of a “criminal suspension” of Cummings’ license to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV). Similar notices had already been sent in the earlier cases.
The problem is Cummings had not committed a criminal act. A municipal ordinance is not the same thing as a state statute. Florida law provides for various court costs and suspension of license for acts that violate criminal statutes. But Cummings’ attorneys, from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida and Southern Legal Counsel, argued that only $8 of the court costs Cummings was assessed were permitted for ordinance violations. The remaining costs were assessed under statutes that applied only to criminal prosecutions. They also said a driver’s license could only be suspended for a criminal act, which Cummings had not committed.
County Clerk of Courts David R. Ellspermann argued that more 60 days had passed since Cummings had been sentenced, so some court costs should stand.
But Ellspermann conceded that Cummings’ driver’s license should not be suspended for failure to pay financial obligations in a municipal ordinance case. He also said his office will stop including such language in similar cases and will notify DHSMV officials of anyone whose license has already been mistakenly suspended.
A three-judge panel sided with Cummings, reduced his court costs to $8 per offense and ordered his license reinstated. Their order is forthcoming.
More than 30,000 people are homeless in Florida; 47 percent of those sleep outdoors. This is driven in large part by a lack of affordable housing. Cities then proceed to criminalize homelessness.
Criminalization consists of ordinances that ban sleeping, camping, and storing personal property outdoors. Sharing food with the homeless is also restricted in some cities. These ordinances make it illegal for the homeless to do what is necessary to survive and are unconstitutional.
The homeless are assessed costs they can’t pay and as a result lose their driver’s licenses. They aren’t the only ones whose licenses are suspended for reasons that have nothing to do with driving. In 2018, more than 275,000 Floridians lost their licenses for non-driving offenses; 103,000 were suspended for failure to pay court costs.
If Florida was Manhattan, this might not be a problem, but it’s not. Would-be employers regularly ask applicants if they have a driver’s license. Many homeless people do try to find work.
Suspension of a license also leaves some people without the ability to keep doctor’s appointments, transport their children to school or even to shop for food in areas where markets are not nearby.
The Cummings case exemplifies how Florida continues to be punitive about crime and in ways that only make matters worse. In Marion County, a step has been taken in the right direction. We hope other counties follow suit.
Jackie Azis is a staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida and Chelsea Dunn is a staff attorney at the Southern Legal Counsel