Voter fraud charge dismissed in first challenge to arrests by DeSantis' elections crimes unit
TALLAHASSEE — The first of at least 19 people arrested for voter fraud in August by Gov. Ron DeSantis had charges dismissed on Friday in Miami.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch threw out the case against Robert Lee Wood, 56, for alleged illegally voting in the 2020 presidential election, according to the Miami Herald.
Hirsch said state prosecutors didn’t have proper authority, saying the alleged crime occurred in only one county, not multiple jurisdictions. And state prosecutors are limited to cases that involve more than one jurisdiction.
The Herald reported that the prosecution planned to appeal, but, if the ruling is upheld, it would represent a big setback for the governor and his controversial Office of Election Crimes and Security.
The cases against Wood and the others were brought by the Office of Statewide Prosecution rather than a local state attorney, something the judge concluded was improper on jurisdictional grounds, the Associated Press reported Friday.
“Here the crime, if there was one, occurred exclusively in Miami,” Hirsch wrote. “It is an old truth that all politics is local. OSP seeks to stand that old truth on its head.”
Crist decries voting-fraud arrests:Crist decries voting-fraud arrests after body cam video shows voters shocked by felony charges
DeSantis on the defense:Gov. DeSantis defends voter fraud prosecutions amid increasing criticism
Voting rights advocates have blasted DeSantis and his newly created election crimes unit for attempting to intimidate voters, especially minority voters. At least 15 of those arrested are Black.
Wood's attorney, Larry Davis, wants prosecutors to drop the case, saying his client registered to vote after being cleared to do so before the 2020 presidential election and had received a voter registration card to cast a legal ballot.
"There's no way he would have done so without being told it was OK," Davis told Reuters. "My client had absolutely no intent to break the law."
In a joint statement Friday, the Legal Defense Fund, Brennan Center for Justice, American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Florida applauded the Miami-Dade judge's decision.
“We are horrified by the ongoing arrests and prosecutions of Floridians with past felony convictions for what appear to be honest mistakes about their eligibility," they said. "It is also highly unlikely that the Office of Statewide Prosecution has the authority to prosecute these individuals as it has been doing."
The voting fraud arrests were first announced by DeSantis at a Aug. 18 press conference in Broward County.
DeSantis said those arrested were felons who were ineligible to vote and were being charged with third-degree felony fraud. The felons committed offenses — murder or sex crimes — that precluded them from automatically having their voting rights restored under a 2018 amendment to the state constitution.
Wood was convicted of second-degree murder in 1991, according to the Herald.
DeSantis touted the voter fraud prosecutions as the "opening salvo" from his election security office. "This is something we take very seriously as a state," he said in August.
Voting rights were restored then thousands became ineligible
Florida voters approved Amendment 4, aimed at restoring voting rights to 1.4 million people barred because of past felony convictions, with the exception of murder or a sexual offense.
Just months later, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that was signed into law by DeSantis to keep hundreds of thousands of felons from becoming eligible to vote until they meet all their past legal financial obligations.
The law created confusion because a lack of available records made it difficult for a felon to track what they owed in fines or restitution.
Voting rights groups and others — including Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes, the GOP legislator who drafted the original law implementing Amendment 4 — have argued that state elections officials failed to meet its role in verifying voter eligibility.
Neil Volz, deputy director of Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which works to end what it describes as discrimination against and disenfranchisement of those with felony convictions, said the Miami judge's decision is "a step in the right direction."
“This strengthens our resolve to continue to place people over politics and honor the commitment we made to the 1.4 million people impacted by Amendment 4, who should be enjoying the opportunity to fully participate in our democracy," Volz said in a statement issued Friday.
Earlier this week, the Tampa Bay Times and the Herald obtained police body camera footage from the Tampa area law enforcement agencies that show three people taken into custody told law enforcement authorities they were originally told they were eligible to vote. Those who appeared in the video footage reacted with shock on being arrested nearly two years after they voted in the 2020 presidential election.
The video footage went viral on social media and attracted widespread media attention from CBS News, CNN, The New York Times and other major national media. USA Today Network-Florida also obtained the video footage from the Tampa Police Department.
Like those who appeared in the police camera footage, most voters charged told different media outlets in the days following DeSantis’ announcement that they didn't realize they were ineligible and had no intention of committing fraud.
"The arrests are a grotesque abuse of power by Gov. DeSantis," said the ACLU of Florida in a statement on Wednesday. "Although the Governor and Legislature claimed that they passed SB 7066 in 2019 to ‘clarify’ Voting Restoration Amendment 4, in reality, the law created an unworkable pay-to-vote system which is intentionally difficult and complex to navigate.
“When people register and/or vote without realizing they're ineligible, the proper course should be to cancel their registration, not prosecute them," the ACLU said. "It is the state’s responsibility to determine eligibility of Floridians registering to vote, and the state should devote resources to determining a voter’s eligibility, not to upending lives in order to prosecute mistakes."
"What we've seen with these videos is the human face of a broken system," said Volz of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition after the footage was released.
The coalition, along with the Sentencing Project, announced this week they had established a bail fund for those arrested on voter fraud and are seeking attorneys who pledge to provide them with free legal assistance.
DeSantis has defended the prosecutions, noting that voters have to check a box on their registration form stating "I affirm that I am not a convicted felon, or if I am, that my right to vote has been restored."
USA Today Network-Florida government accountability reporter Douglas Soule is based in Tallahassee, Fla. He can be reached at DSoule@gannett.com. Twitter: @DouglasSoule