William Patrick - SaintPetersBlog

William Patrick

Proposed legislation could break the cycle of debt for many caught in Florida’s legal system

It’s a vicious circle: Poor people who can’t afford their court-related costs and penalties incur escalating costs for not paying, further indebting them to the state.

“It’s a circle that some people get stuck in and they can’t get out,” Christopher Torres, a Tallahassee defense attorney and former Florida assistant attorney general, told Watchdog.org.

Compounding the problem is the state’s practice of suspending drivers’ licenses as both a punishment for delinquent payments and an incentive to get people to pay up. For those who can’t afford their financial obligations, the suspensions only add more obstacles to meeting debts and ultimately moving on.

A new reform bill aims to break the cycle.

Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg is proposing legislation to modify legal-debt payment terms and prohibit drivers’ license suspensions statewide for individuals demonstrating an inability to pay court obligations and other legal penalties.

The St. Petersburg Republican is teaming up with state Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Tampa Bay-area Democrat, to push the reform measure. An identical bill, also sponsored by Brandes, died in an appropriations committee last year despite unanimous support from fellow legislators at two separate committees stops.

Brandes sits on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and helped pass a landmark civil asset forfeiture bill in 2016. A second attempt at reforming legal system costs and burdens indicates renewed confidence that the reforms could pass this year.

Local clerks of court are required to accept monthly debt payments equal to one-twelfth of 2 percent of a person’s annual net income. It’s a flexible standard meant to accommodate various income backgrounds.

But payments are often arranged inflexibly and at higher rates.

“In Florida, this presumption is often ignored and payment levels are set at fixed amounts,” states a Brennan Center for Justice report on criminal justice debt.

Brandes’ bill would cap annual payments made to local clerks of court at no more than 2 percent of annual net income, unless an applicant agrees to pay more.

In Florida, clerks of court also turn over unpaid accounts after 90 days to private attorneys or debt collection services. State law allows them to tack on 40 percent surcharges to underlying debts.

The proposed legislation wouldn’t abolish the surcharges, but it would limit the amount of time private collectors could pursue legal system debts to no more than 5 years. It would also deny any additional charges beyond what clerks of court contractually negotiate through an open bidding process.

Suspension problems

With respect to drivers’ licenses, prohibiting suspensions for low-income people would help tackle the inherent inefficiency of obstructing good-faith efforts to drive to work and earn an income.

“Most people in Florida are dependent on driving,” Torres said. “If you can’t drive then it’s harder to work or find employment. … Getting caught driving illegally means new problems added to old problems, maybe even an arrest, and the cycle starts over again.”

According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, 1.5 million notices of suspension were issued in 2014, mostly originating from “failure to comply” or “failure to pay” offenses.

The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, a legislative research office, reports that a large percentage of license suspensions relating to delinquent court costs take more than two years to reinstate.

Reinstatement requires full payment of all financial obligations, enrolling in a payment plan (if not already enrolled), or a court order granting relief.

The amount of time and money involved for many suspension reinstatements leaves the door open for illegal driving. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators estimates that as many as three-fourths of drivers with suspended or revoked licenses continue to drive.

Torres said the penalties for driving with a suspended license hinge on intent. If a law enforcement officer determines that an individual was driving “without knowledge” that their license was suspended, then the penalty is a civil offense punishable by a traffic ticket.

If an officer determines that a driver was “knowingly” driving with a suspended license, then the offense is criminal and warrants arrest.

Under current law, hardship exemptions for business or employment purposes do not apply for failing to pay court obligations and legal penalties, even though they’re available for many driving-related suspensions, such as driving under the influence.

Prohibiting license suspensions for indigents, disabled persons, bankrupt individuals and government assistance recipients could enhance efforts to pay off legal obligations and reduce the cycle of escalating burdens and taxpayer resources required to sustain the merry-go-round process.

The question may be whether the state and local governments are willing to lose the revenue streams.

Revenue vs. debtors

According to a legislative staff analysis, if Brandes’ 2016 bill would’ve passed it would’ve caused significant government revenue losses.

“The bill would likely have a negative impact on local tax collectors and clerks of court who retain a portion of revenues from certain drivers’ license sanctions when issuing reinstatements, in addition to other fees retained by them associated with drivers’ license suspensions and revocations.”

The Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers, a statewide association, estimated clerks of court would suffer annual losses ranging from $24.7 million to $82.4 million, depending on the success of the reforms.

If 15 percent of collections were lost because of the new payment plan modifications, licensing reforms, or the bill’s promotion of community service as a way to pay work off debts at minimum wage, then clerks of court could lose an estimated $24.7 million in revenue.

If participation jumped to 50 percent, then $82.4 million in estimated losses could result.

Add on another $7.5 million in annual recurring funds for new full-time employees and IT support for payment plan maintenance, and legislators might balk at the reforms again.

But the issue isn’t going away. Criminal justice reformers are confronting financially burdensome, and sometimes insurmountable, legal system practices across the country.

Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, says the cycle of escalating court obligations and legal penalties is too expensive in both human and taxpayer costs.

“While there is a legitimate role for fines and fees, their use has skyrocketed over the last few decades, with the penalties appearing to be more tied to generating revenue for government rather than legitimate public safety purposes,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union asserts that “state and local courts have increasingly attempted to supplement their funding by charging fees to people convicted of crimes, including fees for public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation, and probation supervision.”

The debate between revenue and reform will be heard at the state Capitol when the annual legislative session convenes on March 7.

Last year, the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers association reported $894 million in total collections for court costs, monetary penalties, fees, service charges and other costs. The collection rate was 73 percent.

Share On Facebook
Share On Twitter
Share On Google Plus
Share On Linkedin
Share On Pinterest
Share On Reddit
Share On Stumbleupon
Share On Youtube
Contact us

Under Donald Trump, Florida’s premium cigar industry could escape job-killing FDA regulations

On the verge of being snuffed out by Obama administration regulators, Florida’s traditional and culturally distinct premium cigar industry has a chance at new life.

Late last week, U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the incoming chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, met with President-elect Donald Trump and submitted a list of 232 items that could be repealed immediately after Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration.

“We must undo Obama’s harmful regulatory regime that has hurt hardworking Americans across the nation,” the group said in language akin to Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

One item in the report entitled “First 100 Days: Rules, Regulations and Executive Orders to Examine, Revoke and Issue” recommends stripping the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of its authority to regulate tobacco products.

The move could save at least 2,600 Florida jobs currently at risk and spare many businesses, according to Mark Pursell, CEO of the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association.

Progressive-liberal firebrand U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., who’s no fan of Republicans, urged the executive branch agency to back off premium cigars when it first began targeting the industry through a proposed administrative rule in 2014, but to no avail.

In a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, Grayson said that “the premium cigar industry is responsible for employing an estimated 20,000 Americans, and realizes almost $2 billion in annual revenue.”

The incoming Trump administration could extinguish the economic hardship on Day One, according to Meadows.

Under Obama, the FDA launched an aggressive crackdown on tobacco and began treating cigars the same as cigarettes.

According to the agency, the restrictions are necessary to reduce “death and disease” from tobacco products, and the “dramatic rise in youth and young adult use of tobacco products such as e-cigarettes, waterpipe tobacco, and continued youth and young adult use of cigars (mainly cigarillos).”

Others see it differently.

“Premium cigar retailers already institute a wide range of controls to prevent youth access to these cigars, and all the taxation, labeling and testing requirements that FDA has instituted will accomplish is limit the diversity of products on the market, curtail innovation and raise prices,” Pursell said.

The FDA’s restrictions also ban free tobacco samples, institute new manufacturing equipment standards and abolish the delivery of cigars to American military service members overseas.

Last week’s Freedom Caucus report said: “the threat of FDA restrictions has loomed over the cigar business ever since the FDA took control over cigarettes.”

In 2009, a Democratic-controlled Congress amended the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to include the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, giving the FDA sweeping authority to regulate tobacco. President Obama signed it into law in June 2009.

What started as a harsh focus on cigarettes expanded into a harsh crackdown on all forms of tobacco — something even Grayson, a staunch liberal, considered mission creep.

“Premium cigars should not be subject to FDA regulation,” he said five years after supporting the FDA oversight legislation.

“I urge the FDA to exempt premium cigars from the proposed regulation, consistent with Congress’s intent when passing the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, for which I voted personally,” Grayson said.

Premarket review

“The worst fear of cigar manufacturers and smokers alike has been that the FDA will impose the same onerous premarket review requirements on cigars that it currently places on cigarettes,” the Freedom Caucus report said.

That fear became a reality in August, when the FDA implemented a finalized rule two-years in the making requiring new tobacco products, as well as those made since February 2007, to undergo an expensive premarket review process, or as the administration defines it, “rigorous scientific review.”

Altering the size, shape, packaging and blend of any cigar product also triggers government approval.

“This process requires that manufacturers prove their products meet certain requirements before they can go to market by submitting hundreds if not thousands of hours of paperwork per product,” said Azarias Cordoba, owner of Córdoba and Morales Cigars, near Orlando.

“Since the FDA defines new cigars to include new blends, which can change seasonally for smaller manufacturers, the compliance costs could overwhelm many small-cigar businesses,” he said in an op-ed co-written by Chris Hudson of Americans for Prosperity.

According to Cigar Aficionado, an industry publication, the FDA confirmed in May that new product applications could “cost hundreds of thousands of dollars” per application. As a result, manufacturers effectively would be paying the government to regulate them out of business.

“That’s part of their game,” Eric Newman, president of J.C. Newman’s Cigar Co., a 121-year-old family business, said of the outgoing administration’s enormous new fees.

“Cigars are to Tampa what wine is to Napa Valley and what automobiles are to Michigan,” Newman said when U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., visited his Tampa factory three weeks before the Nov. 8 presidential election.

Newman’s Cigar City Co. is facing $2.5 million in new compliance costs that would have to be, in part, offset by laying off up to half the factory’s workers, he said.

“Anyone that has common sense knows that a premium cigar is simply not consumed the same way a cigarette is,” said Rubio. “It’s not a public health threat.”

Speaking in both English and Spanish, Rubio said he hoped a bipartisan bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to exempt premium cigars would pass Congress before the end of the year. It won’t, just as several other attempts previously failed.

The Obama administration added insult to injury for Florida’s cigar producers and workers in October, when it announced in that Cuban cigars are now allowed in the United States as a result of the administration’s outreach efforts to the communist island government. But the new tobacco requirements won’t apply to Cuban tobacco products.

Cordoba, a Cuban-American, said his family business was once taken when Fidel Castro’s regime shut down factories across Cuba.

“I admit that the FDA’s actions are far less extreme than that of Fidel Castro. But the sting of government control over the economies and lives of people comes at a high price: the possible loss of a thriving business,” he said.

Via FloridaWatchdog.org.

Share On Facebook
Share On Twitter
Share On Google Plus
Share On Linkedin
Share On Pinterest
Share On Reddit
Share On Stumbleupon
Share On Youtube
Contact us
Show Buttons
Hide Buttons