I take issue with Mr. (David) Dunn-Rankin’s view that court fees and fines are technically a poll tax on lower income Floridians. To be clear, petty infractions such as speeding, illegal parking, running a red light, do not rise to the level that allows the court to take away a person’s right to vote. Only criminal activity rises to that level. Misdemeanors and felonies.
If one is convicted of a misdemeanor or felony in Florida, one may well be hit with court fees and other “user fees”. Also, if one is convicted of a crime where someone was injured, there is a good likelihood that one may be required to pay restitution to the injured party.
A person of lower income understands that he or she cannot afford an expensive luxury car and therefore does not undertake the purchase. If this same person commits a crime, gets caught, convicted and incurs court costs, user fees and is required to pay restitution, does this person believe others should pay his debt? Should others pay his debt? It is one thing to say that a person is unable to pay an amount of fees and restitution but it is quite another thing to suggest that someone else pay for his misbehavior. Should we give up on accountability altogether? Isn’t it likely that a lack of accountability contributed to the problem in the first place?
Mr. Dunn-Rankin, you seem to be suggesting that not only should “someone else” pay this criminal’s debt but, in addition this criminal should not even suffer the consequence of losing his right to vote even though he did not have to pay his own debt. Do you feel this way regardless of the crime? If not, where do you draw the line?
Comparing this to a poll tax is akin to a mother stating that her wonderful, prince of a son did not deserve to be forcefully taken from her home by police. Never mind the fact that he is a rapist, drug using, armed robber with a long and violent criminal history. Why is it that so often, when people make the argument that the “establishment” isn’t fair to [enter name of unfairly treated person or group], they leave out the part about the murder, rape, armed assault, fire bombing, looting, robbery, etc. that got them there in the first place, as though it is insignificant? It is not insignificant.
I hesitate to make this next statement because it seems to be so abundantly self-evident. If the lower income person had not committed the crime there would be no need for court costs or user fees or restitution. There would be no need to have this discussion. There would be no need for someone else to pay for anything and this lower income person could vote and even hold public office himself and maybe even become president.
Yes, Mr. Dunn-Rankin, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it probably is a duck but it isn’t a poll tax. And it isn’t a plot by the right to keep anyone from voting. Why is it unfair that those who create the court costs in the first place be required to pay them?
I do agree that some of Florida’s laws regarding legal financial obligations known as “user fees” need to be updated. We actually charge indigent people a $50 fee for their “free” court appointed lawyer. I also agree that taking a person’s driver’s license is counterproductive to helping them pay their obligations. These problems should be addressed. But I don’t think the answer is to continuously and completely let people off the hook because they can’t pay. In fact, I think that very act adds to the magnitude of the problem. If we believe the right thing to do is to waive the fees and restitution required of these criminals, why not waive the incarceration time too?
Tim Dowling is a Sebring resident. Guest columns are the opinion of the writer, not necessarily that of the Highlands News-Sun.