Federal judge says Florida’s pay-to-vote law for felons is unconstitutional

A Florida law that requires convicted felons to pay legal fees associated with their criminal case before regaining the right to vote was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge on Sunday.

In his 125-page ruling, Judge Robert Hinkle said the law disenfranchises those with criminal backgrounds who are either unable to pay the legal fees or lack the ability to find out how much is owed in their case.

Hinkle said the 24th Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the creation of a poll tax that must be paid in exchange for the right to vote in a federal election. The judge wrote that the Florida law did not explicitly seek to create a poll tax, but by tying a person’s ability to vote to a judgment entered against them in a criminal case, Florida had created a “tax by any other name.”

“The obligations existed separate and apart from, and for reasons unrelated to, voting,” Hinkle wrote.

In 2018, Florida voters approved Amendment 4, a ballot initiative that automatically restored voting rights to state residents with felony convictions. Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled state legislator sought to narrow the applicability of Amendment 4 with Senate Bill 7066 by conditioning a defendant’s restoration of voting rights to the completion of any financial obligations in their criminal case.

The proposed legislation passed in Florida along party lines, with Republican lawmakers favoring the measure and Democratic lawmakers opposing it. The state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, signed the measure into law last summer.

One week after the measure was signed into law, Kelvin Jones, a disabled criminal defendant, filed a lawsuit against DeSantis alleging the law discriminated against poor defendants who were unable to pay monetary fines and other legal fees.

Attorneys and civil advocacy groups working on Jones’ behalf said the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution because it disenfranchised African Americans and other minorities who are the most likely to be unable to pay financial judgments in criminal cases.

During a recent trial on the matter, Hinkle said he found it difficult to believe that partisan politics and race didn’t play a factor in the creation and passage of SB 7066.

“Why is it all the Republicans voted ‘yes’ and all the Democrats voted ‘no’?” Hinkle said according to the New York Times. “That is not a coincidence — it would be stunning if someone told me that [lawmakers] did not realize that African-Americans tend to vote Democratic more than Republican.”

But in his ruling on Sunday, Hinkle acknowledged that the plaintiffs in the case didn’t present enough evidence that showed the measure was motivated by race.

Still, Hinkle said SB 7066 had the opposite effect of what voters apparently intended with the passage of Amendment 4 — to make it easier for those with criminal records to vote in elections, not harder.

“The voters’ primary motivation plainly was to restore the vote to deserving felons at the appropriate time — to show a measure of forgiveness and to welcome even felons back into the electorate,” Hinkle wrote. “The sentiment is hardly surprising: Forgiveness is a sentiment that appeals to most voters and has long been a mainstay of the state’s most popular religions. … Before Amendment 4, no state disenfranchised as large a portion of the electorate as Florida.”

Voters likely didn’t know how much those with criminal convictions were required to pay in fines and restitution, Hinkle wrote. It turns out, many defendants also don’t know how much is owed because Florida does not have an adequate process for defendants to get that information, the judge said.

Last October, when Hinkle issued a temporary injunction in the case, he ordered state officials to create a system allowing those with criminal judgments to learn about any outstanding balance owed and whether they were eligible to have their voting rights restored. If state officials couldn’t provide that information upon request within a three-week period, the state had to permit those with convictions to register to vote, Hinkle ruled.

The decision on Sunday makes that injunction permanent and codifies that information system going forward, though Hinkle acknowledged the legal fight over SB 7066 is likely to escalate.

It isn’t clear how long that fight could take or whether it might have an effect on the upcoming presidential election, but advocates are seeing the judge’s order as a victory for now.

“We will have our voices heard and people will have to have conversations with us if they want to get in office and stay in office,” Desmond Meade, an official with the Florida Rights Restoration Commission, told Spectrum News 13 on Sunday.

Another group called the judge’s ruling a “watershed moment in election law.”

“States can no longer deny people access to the ballot box based on unpaid court costs and fees, nor can they condition rights restoration on restitution and fines that a person cannot afford to pay,” Paul Smith, an executive with the Campaign Legal Center, told NPR News.

The majority of states restore voting rights to those with felony convictions. Some require a person complete their criminal sentence, while others restore rights the moment a person walks out of prison.

In California, residents who are serving time in federal or state prison cannot register to vote, nor can those who are incarcerated in county jail after being convicted of a felony. But residents who are in county jail after being convicted of a misdemeanor can register to vote.

California also allows those with felony convictions who are on probation, mandatory supervision or post-release community supervision to register to vote. Defendants who have served their time in federal prison and are on federal supervised release are also allowed to register to vote.

Two states — Maine and Vermont — never revoke a resident’s right to vote, even if they are incarcerated for a crime, while three states — Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia — permanently ban defendants with felony convictions from voting.

CNN scores small victory in lawsuit brought by Devin Nunes as judge agrees to move case

Cable news giant CNN secured a small victory last week in a defamation lawsuit brought by U.S. Representative Devin Nunes of California.

On Friday, a federal judge in Virginia agreed to move the lawsuit to New York after determining there was “no logical connection” between the parties and the lawsuit’s original filing in Richmond.

It marks the first time a judge has agreed to move one of Nunes’ many lawsuits from one venue to another, the Fresno Bee reported.

Nunes, described by the New York Law Journal as a “staunch defender of President Donald Trump in the Congress,” sued CNN after the news organization published a story last November allegedly linking Nunes to Ukrainian Prosecutor Viktor Shokin during an off-the-books trip to Vienna in 2018.

CNN said it received information about the meeting from an attorney representing an indicted associate of Trump’s personal lawyer and advisor Rudy Giuliani. The meeting between Nunes and Shokin focused on “digging up dirt on Joe Biden,” the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, CNN reported.

Nunes disputed the CNN report, telling another news publication the accusation was “demonstrably false.” He later released photos he said proved he was not in Vienna when CNN’s source claimed he visited.

Nunes is a highly-litigious politician whose targets for lawsuits have included  Hearst and the magazine Esquire; newspaper giant McClatchy Corporation and its subsidiary paper the Fresno Bee; political opposition research firm Fusion GPS; and a parody Twitter account whose author masquerades as a fictitious cow. In the latter suit, Nunes filed against Twitter in an apparent attempt to unmask whoever was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the account.

The congressman has filed most of his lawsuits over the last three years in Virginia. In the lawsuit against CNN, Judge Robert E. Payne warned Nunes and his attorney against the apparent practice of “forum shopping” — a practice where litigants try to have their case heard in a certain court based on an apparent belief that a judge or jury might rule in their favor.

“The Court cannot stand as a willing repository for cases which have no real nexus to this district,” Payne wrote in his decision.

Nunes, who represents the Fresno area, has not filed any of his defamation lawsuits in California. The exact reasons for this are unclear, though legal experts suspect Nunes may find the odds against him due to a state law that limits lawsuit over free speech and expression.

The law, known as Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), allows defendants to move for a quick dismissal as well as any legal fees associated with responding to a lawsuit.

Earlier this year, lawmakers in Virginia passed separate bills — Senate Bill 375 and House Bill 759 — mirroring California’s Anti-SLAPP law earlier this year. But when it came time for each chamber to hear the other’s Anti-SLAPP bill, both chamber re-wrote the other’s bill, and the overall proposal stalled.

State Senator John Edwards pledged to revive the bill during next year’s legislative session.

Republican groups sue to block California’s mass vote-by-mail initiative

The Republican National Committee and two other GOP groups have filed a federal lawsuit in the Eastern District of California challenging Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order declaring California a vote-by-mail state.

The executive order, signed by Newsom earlier this month, was promoted as a way to curb the spread of viral infections during the state’s emergency crisis over the novel coronavirus COVID-19 while at the same time ensuring registered California voters could still cast a ballot in the upcoming presidential election.

Since then, Republican groups have voiced opposition to the plan, saying it had the potential to increase voter fraud through a system that is already riddled with problems. Now, Republican groups are asking a federal court to declare Newsom’s executive order unlawful.

In a filing made with the federal court on Saturday, the Republican National Committee — joined by the National Republican Congressional Committee and the California Republican Party — said Newsom’s order would “invite fraud, coercion, theft and otherwise illegitimate voting.”

“By ordering that vote-by-mail ballots be automatically sent to every registered voter—including inactive voters, voters with invalid registrations, voters who have moved, voters who have died, and voters who don’t want a ballot—he has created a recipe for disaster,” the groups write.

The groups cited several studies in the lawsuit that purported to demonstrate problems and inaccuracies with voter registration records kept by several states. California was not explicitly mentioned in any of the citations pulled from those groups’ studies.

“Much of the push toward all-mail voting has been driven by litigation initiated by the Democratic Party,” the groups wrote in the court filing. “The Democratic National Committee, state Democratic parties, and several affiliated groups have filed lawsuits across the country to force a hurried transition to no-excuse mail-in voting, eliminate voter-identification requirements, and remove other existing safeguards.”

Click/tap to read the full lawsuit filed by GOP groups over Newsom’s vote-by-mail order.

The groups accused Democrat-aligned groups with pushing for vote-by-mail initiatives long before the global spread of the COVID-19 virus because “they believe that the resulting free-for-all will help their electoral prospects.” Since the pandemic started, those groups have pushed harder for vote-by-mail initiatives under the guise of safeguarding public health, the groups contend.

“But COVID-19 does not warrant throwing out longstanding safeguards that protect the integrity of elections,” the lawsuit says. ” In fact, it makes those safeguards more important.”

Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state, didn’t disagree that the ongoing health crisis required a new approach to voting in California, but said in a Twitter statement on Saturday that the decision to shift to vote-by-mail in the state was “not a partisan issue.”

“It’s a moral imperative to protect voting rights and public safety,” Padilla wrote. “Vote-by-mail has been used safely and effectively in [several] states for years.”

Padilla called this weekend’s lawsuit “another part of Trump’s political smear campaign against voting by mail.” Earlier this month, he said state officials would “do our best” to preserve in-person voting as an alternative to vote-by-mail.

The case is RNC v. Newsom2020-at-00509.

Federal appellate court upholds California’s temporary ban on in-person church services

A federal appellate court has upheld a portion of California’s shelter-in-place order that prohibits in-person worship services at churches across the state.

The case was heard following a lawsuit filed in federal court by the South Bay United Pentecostal Church of Chula Vista.

Churches have been prohibited from holding mass gatherings and other in-person services since mid-March when Governor Gavin Newsom declared an emergency shelter-in-place order to deal with the ongoing health pandemic brought on by the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

The shelter-in-place order, which required Californians to forego non-essential activity, was followed this month with a multi-phase re-opening plan that sought to return life to a sense of normalcy in the Golden State.

More than 30 counties have been given conditional approval from state officials to proceed with Phase 2 of the state’s re-opening plan, which allows for restaurants to offer in-person dining experiences subject to certain social conditioning requirements and resumes operations at state parks and beaches within certain parameters.

Not included in Phase 2 of the state’s re-opening plans: Churches and other places of worship. That discrepancy provoked a civil rights attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice to send a letter to Newsom and Xavier Becerra, the state’s attorney general, warning their decision to place churches in a different phase may violate constitutional protections and federal law.

Prior to filing the lawsuit, South Bay United Pentecostal Church Bishop Arthur Hodges told local public radio station KPBS-FM he tried to resolve the situation through backchannel diplomacy with the governor and other state officials. When that failed, he filed a lawsuit in federal court.

That lawsuit was rejected by a federal judge in San Diego on May 15. Hodges took his case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a 2-1 decision handed down on Friday, the appellate court found in favor of California.

But the fight is not over yet: The Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, an advocacy group representing the church in federal court, filed an emergency motion with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to finally get an injunction to block the state’s temporary prohibition on in-person worship services, the Times of San Diego reported.

“Gov. Newsom would apparently rather litigate this case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court than allow a single Californian to go to church,” Charles LiMandri, the chief litigation counsel for the group, told the news outlet.

Sacramento civil litigator Mark Reichel said judges generally consider the ongoing health crisis to be a “once-in-a-lifetime event” that has disrupted normal, everyday activities.

For now, that means churches in California will have to remain closed until the state is ready to move into Phase 3 of the re-opening plan.

“Until a federal judge says the churches have to open, the governor can still keep them close,” Reichel said.

Monterey County probes Hobby Lobby over compliance with coronavirus orders

Prosecutors in Monterey County opened an investigation into craft retailer Hobby Lobby this week after receiving a complaint that the business was not complying with county and statewide shelter-in-place orders enacted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The exact complaint submitted to the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office is unclear, but it was enough to probe whether Hobby Lobby was in compliance with a section of the California Business and Professions Code that dealt with unfair and deceptive business practices.

The outcome of the investigation skewed in favor of Hobby Lobby after officials with the District Attorney’s office determined the retailer to be an “essential business” as defined by county and state proclamations issued in mid-March.

In a press release, the District Attorney’s office says Hobby Lobby sells cloth and fabrics that can be used by customers to make face masks and other personal protective equipment. That equipment has been promoted by health officials as being effective against the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

Other businesses that are allowed to remain open include those that sell equipment needed for work-from-home environments and specific mixed-retail businesses that sell “non-essential” products, the District Attorney’s office said.

After the investigation against Hobby Lobby was launched, customers told local news station KSBW-TV that a store manager limited purchases to “essential” supplies only.

DOJ attorney locks on to California’s coronavirus shelter-at-home orders, warns they may be illegal

A Department of Justice attorney sent two letters to officials in California warning that elements of their stay-at-home orders may impede on constitutionally-protected freedoms as well as federal law.

The letters were penned by Eric S. Dreiband, an Assistant Attorney General working in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. His latest communication with officials in California came on Friday when Dreiband sent a letter to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

In the letter, Dreiband warned that Garcetti’s comments over an extended coronavirus-related shelter-at-home order could be “unlawful,” noting that the mayor’s plan appeared to be “arbitrary.”

A letter sent by DOJ attorney Eric Dreiband to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Friday.

Dreiband’s letter, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, took aim at comments made by Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s top public health official, on a national morning news program. During the show, Ferrer said Los Angeles County would likely “never be completely open” until a vaccine or cure for the novel coronavirus COVID-19 was available.

Though Garcetti later clarified Ferrer’s comments, Dreiband said the Justice Department was “concerned about what may be an arbitrary and heavy-handed approach to continuing stay-at-home requirements.”

Garcetti has warned Los Angeles may remain partially closed for at least several months. As of Saturday, more than 2,000 deaths have been attributed to the-fast spreading novel coronavirus.

In March, businesses throughout California were closed following a statewide shelter-in-place order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The governor’s plan followed several similar orders issued by a handful of California counties hit hardest by the virus.

Under the order, certain businesses deemed “essential” were allowed to remain open under modified conditions, including a requirement that these businesses employ social distancing practices. Grocery stores continued to operate, as did dine-in restaurants, though the latter was limited to delivery and pick-up orders.

Other non-essential businesses, including nail salons, barbershops and movie theaters were closed. Recreation areas including state parks and lakes were also closed.

For churches and other places of worship, the governor’s shelter-in-place order triggered a divergence from mass gatherings. While some churches offered services online by drive-through, others flaunted the governor’s order, with police intervening in some cases.

Other churches sued, saying the governor’s order infringed on their constitutional freedom to assemble and worship.

In mid-May, Newsom unveiled a four-step plan to reopen businesses and other operations throughout California. The state is currently allowing some counties to operate in the second phase of the plan, which re-opens dine-in restaurants and shopping malls who adopt more-rigorous “social distancing” guidelines.

But Phase 2 does not apply to churches, which continue to be closed throughout the state. Earlier this week, Dreiband sent a letter to Newsom and Xavier Becerra, the state’s attorney general, warning that the state’s categorization of churches as non-essential likely created an illegal double standard.

“Religious gatherings may not be singled out for unequal treatment compared to other non-religious gatherings that have the same effect on the government’s public health interest absent the most-compelling reasons,” Dreiband wrote.

Speaking to CBS13 News, civil litigator Mark Reichel said DOJ attorneys may have a case against state officials if they decide to pursue that issue in court.

“Until a federal judge says the churches have to open, the governor can still keep them close,” Mark said, adding that state officials aren’t required to respond to the letter until a lawsuit is brought.

Facebook groups have become the new neighborhood watch. They can also become a legal nightmare.

For decades, certain signs affixed to stop signs and other traffic fixtures were installed with the intention of giving would-be criminals food for second thought.

The signs warned of a neighborhood watch, a type of grassroots organization where civilians band together to keep an eye out for graffiti, vandalism and petty crimes.

With roots dating back to the 1960s, neighborhood watch groups were embraced by law enforcement agencies as effective ways to deter crime and help solve cases. But in the era of social media, neighborhood watch groups no longer involve monthly meetings at the house down the street — now it’s as simple as logging on to Nextdoor or uploading Ring doorbell camera footage to a community Facebook group.

In some cases, these groups are hyperfocused on a single event. Such was the case earlier this year when two Facebook groups were launched following the disappearance of 11-year-old Roman Lopez from Placerville.

Roman was living with his biological father, step mother and seven other children when he disappeared from his home. His body was found the next day, and police labeled the death as “suspicious.”

But despite the FBI’s involvement in the case, no suspect has been identified, and police are still trying to figure out what happened.

Anxious residents in Placerville have turned to each other on Facebook to help piece together clues and solve the mystery of Roman’s death. One Facebook group quickly swelled to over 6,000 participants as word of the case spread across the country, CBS13 reported.

Kristin Jabs, an administrator of one of the groups, said she simply wanted to help after learning about Roman. She now speaks publicly on the family’s behalf, acting as a liaison between reporters and family members.

Jabs acknowledges people post their own theories about what happened, which can include pointing fingers at other people, something attorney Mark Reichel said could present certain legal liabilities.

Mark said a person can sue for slander if they are damaged or harmed by what another person posts in a Facebook neighborhood watch group, but he also says those type of slander cases can be difficult to prove.

“To prevail on it, you have to have some real evidence that there is some damage to your reputation,” Mark told CBS13.

It could also have implications on the outcome of criminal cases if police do identify and arrest a suspect, Mark warned, adding that certain information posted to social media could taint a jury pool.

But Mark acknowledges that social media can be a good source of information, including what everyday citizens and community members think happened in a case.

“You can get honest observations, and I have in cases, just like that actually,” Mark said.

Click here to read the full story from CBS13 News