Clerk agrees now to set payment plans based on indigent defendants’ ability to pay, not based on what is owed.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – November 2, 2015
CONTACT: ACLU of Florida Media Office,
media@aclufl.org, (786) 363-2737

OCALA, FL –  Indigent criminal defendants in Florida celebrate a victory as the Clerk of Court for Marion County has reversed his position on a policy that required monthly installment plans for court costs that were often beyond an indigent defendant’s ability to pay. As the Clerk’s change in policy was the principal aim of lawsuit filed in August 2015 by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Florida, the ACLU agreed to drop its challenge.

“We are happy with this development and pleased that the Clerk has shown an understanding that being poor should not mean being set up for failure,” stated ACLU of Florida staff attorney Benjamin Stevenson.

Florida law requires a criminal defendant to pay court costs and fines, known as legal financial obligations or “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. 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.

Notwithstanding this law, clerks throughout Florida often demand that insolvent defendants make monthly installments in excess of what they can afford and suspend their licenses when they fail to comply.  Floridians of color disproportionately have their license suspended for failure to pay LFOs.

Prior to the lawsuit, the Clerk for the Circuit Court for Marion County, Florida had policy that set 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.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida had filed a lawsuit challenging the policy on behalf of Kevin Washington, who, despite being indigent, owed over $53,000 in LFOs and was originally expected to pay monthly installments of $8,500. The lawsuit, filed in the Florida Fifth Judicial Circuit Court in and for Marion County, the same court where the defendant Clerk served, argued that the old policy violated the Florida statute that provided for affordable payment plans for LFOs.

Pursuant to the revised policy, monthly installments should correspond to the criminal defendant’s ability to pay and should not exceed 2% of their income. When a criminal defendant is enrolled in multiple payment plans, the aggregate monthly installments should not exceed this 2% threshold.

As a result of the new policy that sets the payment plans based on an individual’s ability to pay, the Clerk enrolled Washington on a payment plan with $5 monthly installments while he is unemployed.

“Losing your ability to drive, for most people, means losing the means to reliably travel to a job that could help a person not only pay back their LFOs, but build the foundation of a life after the criminal justice system,” added Stevenson. “Under the old system which ignored a person’s ability to pay and set the installments on some arbitrary accounting, the poorest defendants were given an impossibly steep mountain to climb. We are pleased that the Clerk understands that now, and are therefore dismissing our lawsuit.”

“Although the Clerk’s revised policy is not ideal, it is a good start.  We hope that the Clerk will continue to study its collections policy and make further, necessary changes.”

Prior to filing the lawsuit, the ACLU of Florida had submitted a letter to the Marion County Clerk of Court in May of 2014 urging this policy change. A copy of that letter is available here: http://aclufl.org/resources/aclu-letter-to-marion-county-clerk-urging-payment-plan-policy-change/

Despite today’s victory, Marion County is not the only place in Florida in which these exorbitant LFO schemes exist. Individuals facing similarly outrageous LFO payment schemes elsewhere in Florida are encouraged to contact the ACLU of Florida here: https://aclufl.org/get-help/

A copy of the Clerk’s revised policy is available here: http://aclufl.org/resources/marion-county-clerk-revised-payment-plan-policy/

More information about the lawsuit dismissed today, including the original August 5 complaint, is available here: https://aclufl.org/work/in-the-courts/criminal-justice/washington-v-clerk-for-marion-county-florida/

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