Florida appeals court upholds decision to jail single mom for failing to pay $947

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BETH CORTEZ-NEAVEL FOLLOW/FLICKR
  • Beth Cortez-Neavel Follow/Flickr
In a ruling that drew a blistering dissent, a state appeals court Thursday upheld a decision to revoke the probation of a single mother who did not pay $947 in court-ordered costs.

The ruling by a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal came in the Duval County case of Erin Vontez Thompson, who pleaded guilty to second-degree felony neglect after her children, then ages 2 and 5, were found wandering alone outside their apartment in January 2015. A circuit judge sentenced Thompson to two years of probation, requiring her to pay $917 in court costs, $41.60 a month in supervision costs and the costs of drug testing.

In April 2017, however, Thompson went back before a circuit judge after failing to pay any of the court and supervision costs and $30 in drug-testing costs. The state Department of Corrections waived $960 in supervision costs, but a probation officer recommended that Thompson go to jail for failing to pay the other amounts, according to Thursday’s ruling.



The circuit judge ruled that she had been in “substantial and willful” violation of her probation and sentenced her to six months in the county jail. Thompson appealed, arguing in part that evidence showed her failure to pay was not willful or substantial.

But the majority of the appeals court Thursday rejected her arguments, pointing to issues such as Thompson’s failure to search for jobs while on probation, though she temporarily worked at an under-the-table job cleaning the football stadium in Jacksonville.

“She had an under-the-table job, but chose to leave it,” said the majority decision by judges T. Kent Wetherell and Susan Kelsey. “She did not get another job until after a notice to appear (in court) was issued on her violation of probation, and then was able to get a job very quickly. She did not use or offer to use any money gained from those jobs to pay anything at all toward her probation obligations. This evidence was sufficient to establish willfulness and to support the trial court’s discretionary decision to revoke appellant’s (Thompson’s) probation.”

But Judge Scott Makar wrote a lengthy dissent, blasting the decision to revoke the probation of Thompson, who had another child while on probation.

“Under these circumstances, where no findings were made that a financially destitute probationer had the ability to pay costs, no inquiry was made as to the reasons for her failure to do so, no alternatives other than incarceration were considered, and revocation was based on an improper and uncharged ground, an abuse of discretion is manifest,” Makar wrote. “On this record, incarcerating a financially indigent mother of three for failing to pay $917 of court costs goes beyond unreasonable; it harkens back to Anatole France’s adage that the ‘law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.’ ”