COLLECTIONS COURT RULED UNCONSTITUTIONAL ON APPEAL
Nearly two years ago, Polk County followed the lead of Orange and Dade counties in forming a so-called "Collections Court" to regain the estimated two to three million dollars annually in unpaid fines and court costs. Defendants who had served their sentences for misdemeanor violations but were delinquent in paying their fines and/or court costs were scheduled for "pay or appear" hearings, with those not showing up being ruled in contempt and arrest warrents issued accordingly. Hundreds of defendents were rejailed under this system.
The "Collections Court" in Polk County effectively ended last September 1, when Chief Judge Ron Herring issued an administrative order after Tenth Judicial Circuit Public Defender J. Marion Moorman filed litigation against then-Polk County Sheriff Lawrence Crow, whose office runs the county jail, on behalf of nine former clients and 625 unnamed petitioners who had served sentences of between three and 81 days for failure to pay fines and/or court costs.
Wednesday, the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland ruled that Polk County's "Collections Court" as it was run is unconstitutional, and that at least the nine named individuals in the lawsuit had been unlawfully incarcerated (no such relief for the unnamed petitioners). The "Collections Court" did not allow for indigent petitioners to serve community service if they were unable to pay the fine/court costs in question, as allowed through 2004->Ch0938->Section%2030#0938.30">Florida Statute 938.30(2):
(2) The court may require a person liable for payment of an obligation to appear and be examined under oath concerning the person's financial ability to pay the obligation. The judge may convert the statutory financial obligation into a court-ordered obligation to perform community service after examining a person under oath and determining a person's inability to pay. Any person failing to attend a hearing may be arrested on warrant or capias which may be issued by the clerk upon order of the court.
The 12 page decision, written by Judge Patricia J. Kelly, also states that Polk County's actions violated the petitioners' right to due process and right to be heard, as the "pay or appear" hearings were not noted as such where a defendant can be examined under oath regarding their ability to pay, but as a "Contempt of Court Proceeding Hearing".
A "Collections Court" for Highlands County, part of the same Tenth Judicial Circuit, continues under an administrative order issued only five months after the original order setting up Polk County's. The difference is that in Highlands County, there is a partial payment program handled through the Salvation Army where defendants who are experiencing financial difficulty can make monthly payments of at least $25.00. The Salvation Army collects a $15.00 registration fee and a $2.00 fee for each payment to cover it's administrative costs. But there is no mention of a community service alternative as mandated by Florida Statute
Next time, maybe they'll do some basic legal research before trying something like this down in Bartow...It's not clear at present how this decision will affect the other "Collections Court" operations in Miami, Orlando, and Sebring.