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December 1, 2017

New program aims to rework how outstanding warrants are handled
By Jim Ash
Senior Editor

Declaring two recent driver’s license clinics a success, Leon County Judge Layne Smith is already hard at work on the Second Circuit’s next adventure in experimental jurisprudence.

Operation “Safe Surrender” — an attempt to whittle away at a backlog of 12,000 outstanding arrest warrants in Leon County — could become a reality next spring.

Judge Layne Smith Smith wants to carve out a special docket for outstanding warrant cases so lower-level offenders willing to appear voluntarily can avoid arrest and straighten out their legal problems.

“It will be like a first appearance without ever having been arrested,” Smith said. “I’d like to be able to tell somebody, ‘You don’t have to go jail.’”

Over time, Smith says, local taxpayers could save millions of dollars in administrative and detention costs.

Safe Surrender embodies the restorative approach Smith took with the clinics, where motorists with suspended or revoked driver’s licenses were granted formal hearings with the goal of reinstatement.

Clinic participants were offered payment plans or had their fines reduced or waived in exchange for community service. Smith said he wanted to attack a cycle of poverty that begins with a traffic fine and ends with license suspension and job loss.

Or, as he puts it, “This is a hard society to get around in without a car.”

The first clinic in July served 237 motorists, 20 of whom walked away with a driver’s license in hand. A second clinic in mid-October generated nearly identical participation and 11 on-the-spot licenses.

“I know…that one of them was a veteran who hadn’t had a license in forever,” Smith said. “And he was able to get a job because of it.”

Smith said colleagues and court administrators from around the state have approached him for help setting up their own clinics, more proof of their success.

But he acknowledges the clinics are resource intensive. Leon County Court Clerk Gwen Marshall spent months coordinating the events. In addition to Smith, Leon County Judge Stephen Everett, a magistrate and a hearing officer, also heard cases.

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and the Florida Department of Revenue joined other state and local agencies staffing the events.

“You’ve got between 60 and 70 staff people from all these agencies, so it’s a major undertaking,” Smith said. “It’s not sustainable to think we’re going to be able to do this all the time.”

Marshall, the court clerk, agrees. While she enthusiastically supports the concept, Marshall said the clinics had shortcomings. Her budget took a serious hit after the July event. (She’s still waiting to study the numbers from October.)

“We converted more than $100,000 in fines to community service, but after less than a month, 42 percent had already defaulted,” Marshall said. “It’s a good thing to do for the community, but for us, it’s a bit of a Catch 22. Our resources are fine-driven and, unfortunately, our funding model is already broken.”

Many of the participants were blue-collar workers with full-time jobs and discovered, too late, Marshall says, that they couldn’t fulfill their community service requirements.
Smith says it’s a matter of perspective.

“I don’t expect a 100 percent success because everybody who participated in this program had failed before, probably multiple times. Are we not all flawed?”

The clinics were a first for the Second Circuit, and Smith says he plans to have more. But they are too complicated to schedule more than twice a year.

Safe Surrender is attractive because it wouldn’t require as much coordination or staffing, Smith says. The way his calendar is currently configured, Smith thinks he could hold a docket every fifth week.

But there are still many challenges to overcome, Smith says.

What happens if someone shows up with multiple warrants from different counties? How much forgiveness should the state grant to someone who voluntarily surrenders? How does the court convince the public it’s not a trap?

“It’s going to take a buy-in of the community. I’m already at work with the pastors, the people who are active in the community,” Smith said. “Since nobody in the driver’s license clinic got arrested, that helps.”

Smith, a former Leon High School football player, says he won’t be easily deterred from what he sees is his mission: humanizing and hopefully streamlining the administration of justice.

“I’m not Pollyanna and feel like it’s got to be perfect,” he said. “But you’ve got to give people an opportunity. People have to feel like they’ve been treated with respect and that they’ve been heard. And you know what? It’s just the right thing to do.”

[Revised: 12-16-2017]