Marion County Clerk demands indigent defendant pay court costs in monthly payments set without consideration of ability to pay or else lose driver’s license.
OCALA, FL – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida has filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the Marion Clerk of Court’s policy on payment plans for court costs that require monthly installments that are often beyond an indigent defendant’s ability to pay.
Florida law requires a criminal defendant to pay court costs and fines, or legal financial obligations (LFOs), associated with their case, but allows them to pay the LFOs over time. To allow defendants to remain in good standing while paying the LFOs, monthly installments should be set within the financial reach of defendant. However, many clerks refuse to allow drivers to pay the LFOs over time or set installments too high.
The Clerk for the Circuit Court for Marion County, Florida has created a policy that sets LFO payment plan installments based on total fees rather than the individual’s ability to pay, often resulting in exorbitant payment plans that are unaffordable to all but the most wealthy. Failure to pay LFOs results in drivers losing their licenses, which can be a significant burden for individuals trying to maintain a job to support themselves and their family, leading to greater financial hardships that make it harder to pay the LFOs.
The ACLU lawsuit, filed late yesterday afternoon, charges that the policy of the County Clerk violates Florida law and has devastating consequences for Ocala residents.
“Fairness demands that before suspending a driver’s license for failure to pay court costs, a driver should be asked to pay only what they can—and not some excess amount based on arbitrary accounting,” stated ACLU of Florida staff attorney Benjamin Stevenson. “Being unable to pay LFOs means losing your driver’s license, and for most people, that means losing reliable means of transportation to a job at which a person could earn money to repay the LFOs. By limiting drivers to these ridiculous and illegal payment plans, the Clerk is setting them up for failure.”
The ACLU brought the case on behalf of Kevin Washington, who owes over $53,000 in LFOs. When he requested the Marion Clerk enroll him on a payment plan, the clerk initially demanded that the total amount be paid in six months with monthly installments of $8,500. Though this was later reduced after further discussion with the clerk, the clerk denied Washington’s requests for a payment plan based on his expected take home pay which is from a full-time, minimum-wage job.
The lawsuit was filed in the Florida Fifth Judicial Circuit in and for Marion County – the same court at which the defendant Clerk serves. It asks the court to find that the Clerk’s payment plan policy violates the Florida statute providing for payment plans and to require the Clerk to set Mr. Washington’s LFO payment plan that is both reasonable and affordable.
A copy of the complaint is available here.