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How new law, recent trial could change the legal landscape for FL ex-felons still facing voter fraud charges

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Posted at 9:56 AM, Feb 20, 2023

TAMPA, Fla. — The fate of former felons arrested last summer but whose cases have yet to be resolved may have just become a bit more complicated.

After one defendant’s recent jury trial and this week’s adoption of a new state law, defense attorneys with pending cases could have reason to revise their legal playbooks.

Last summer, nearly 20 former Florida felons, whose previous convictions made them ineligible to vote, were arrested for illegally voting in the 2020 election.

But almost as quickly as Governor Ron DeSantis announced their arrests during a press conference touting his newly created election crimes unit, election analysts found flaws in the state’s seemingly confident captures.

“The supervisors sent out the voter registration cards and these people, to their knowledge, had done nothing wrong and had their rights restored to be able to vote,” explained University of Florida political science professor Dr. Dan Smith back in August.

Since the arrests, a quarter of these cases have been dropped or dismissed. Most were due to jurisdictional issues, meaning a judge ruled the statewide prosecutor in Tallahassee didn’t have the authority to charge a defendant in another county.

But that changed this week when Governor DeSantis signed a bill into law clarifying the state prosecutor has the power to prosecute if the crime is alleged to have occurred over two or more counties.

Couple that with the recent jury trial of Hillsborough County defendant Nathan Hart, which ended in a split verdict, and defense attorneys are weighing how best to move forward and get their clients the best deal.

“My client is scared to death about going back to jail,” said Tampa defense attorney Stephen Crawford. His client is among the ex-felons who thought their voting rights had been restored when he cast his ballot in 2020. His case remains pending. While Crawford said the Statewide Prosecutor’s office has already offered his client a plea deal that includes no additional jail time and no fine, Crawford explained why his client still has reservations.

“He didn’t do anything wrong, and it’s hard to get anyone to accept when you didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.

While Crawford and his client are in the process of weighing their options, Miami defense attorney Ramon de la Cabada said the idea of walking away from these cases with a plea deal is likely to become a more attractive offer.

“I think you're going continue to see people electing for the easy out,” he said. Cabada also co-chairs the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and has consulted with some of the attorneys defending these clients.

While he still believes the facts of these cases favor defendants who claim they voted without willful intent, de la Cabada expects most, if not all, of the remaining cases to end in what amounts to no-punishment plea deals.

“It's not about innocence or guilt to them. It's just about I can't believe I got sucked into this,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office, where the Office of the Statewide Prosecutor is located, stated in an email that the office is moving forward with cases both in lower courts and on appeal.