POLITICS

Florida Judge Scraps Policy Of Arresting People Who Fail To Pay Court Fines

And 21,000 people with outstanding debts no longer face jail time.

Some residents of central Florida may feel a little less stressed these days, and they can thank the state's 9th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Frederick Lauten, who announced plans this week to wipe from the record 21,000 arrest orders issued for people who have failed to appear in collections court.

Lauten came to the decision after realizing the legal process that enabled the arrest of people who failed to pay fines and fees -- known as a "writ of bodily attachment" -- "resulted at times in low-values arrests of indigent defendants who had no means to pay," he said Wednesday during a press conference in the Orange County Courthouse.

Lauten at the press conference, with Orange County Clerk Tiffany Moore Russell

One of the people who will be helped by this move: Larry Thompson, a 61-year-old hospice patient who was arrested by Orlando police in 2010 for driving with a suspended license.

Unable to pay the $50 application fee for a public defender, Thompson languished in jail for 59 days. After pleading no contest, he incurred yet more fines he was unable to pay -- including some for partial payment of the original conviction -- and was ultimately arrested again years later for not paying in full.

The absurdity of Thompson's case -- just one of 21,000 that have arisen since the court began the writ-issuing program in 1999 -- earned Thompson a mention during a "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" segment earlier this month:

The court ceased issuing the writs on a trial basis in July. The announcement that the court had decided to permanently do away the program has so far received a "favorable reception" from community members, Lauten told The Huffington Post. 

"Simply put, there are other more effective means to collect monies owed to the court," he explained to the Orlando Sentinel. "Other collections devices are a better use and a fairer use."

A rule that allows the court to suspend a defendant's driver's license instead of mandating jail time still exists, which Lauten acknowledges raises another set of issues. 

"How fair is it to suspend a driver's license in a state where there's no real mass transportation?" Lauten asked, rhetorically. "If you can’t drive, you can’t work in this state. So you take a driver's license away in hopes of motivating someone to pay, but then they lose their employment because they can’t get to work, or they have to break another law and drive without a license. And it perpetuates this cycle."

In family court cases where alimony and child support are involved, failure to pay can still lead to jail time.

Public Defender Bob Wesley supported Lauten's decision, telling Orlando's News 6 in August that the court actually stands to save money by ceasing the practice of issuing the writs.

"Accumulated costs are not a concern to poor people, because once they hit $500 it's an unbelievable amount," Wesley told the station, explaining that the pursuit and arrest of defendants often costs "more money than we would ever collect from them."

Wesley highlighted Thompson's experience as an example.

"[The second time] Mr. Thompson was arrested, he was too sick to go to jail. He went to the hospital with two jail guards watching him," Wesley said. "His lung condition is such that he can't run. He's chained to the bed. How much did that cost the taxpayers to put a guy in hospice care in the hospital?"

Lauten echoed Wesley's sentiments, calling Thompson's arrest a "worst-case scenario" that "cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars in an effort to collect hundreds... from someone who is in hospice care."

While Orange County has ceased arresting people who are unable to pay their debts, the practice lives on in other parts of the country.

A recent Department of Justice report accused authorities in Ferguson, Missouri, of using the process -- and largely preying on minorities -- to generate significant amounts of revenue for the city. And in New Orleans, a group of people filed a class-action lawsuit over the practice Thursday, arguing it's akin to a modern-day debtors' prison.

Lauten said it would be "presumptuous" of him to comment on whether judges elsewhere should follow Orange County's lead, but emphasized that in his district, issuing writs is "a tool whose time has come and gone."

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