City could face costly court bills under law
Published: Friday, August 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 1, 2003 at 12:29 a.m.
A student drives through town with an open bottle of beer in his hand. A vagrant approaches a woman crossing the street and demands money. A house party grows so loud that it wakes up the neighbors.
Those activities are illegal under Gainesville's open beverage, panhandling and noise disturbance ordinances.
But under a new Florida law that goes into effect next year, it may not be worth the city's while to prosecute people who break those and other city ordinances.
House Bill 113A, a 208-page financing bill signed into law in June, was designed to generate between $240 million and $260 million to fund the state court system.
But it also could make Gainesville and other Florida cities less inclined to use those courts to prosecute people who violate city ordinances.
"It could end up costing city money to bring law violators to justice," said Kraig Conn, legal counsel for the Florida League of Cities, a municipal government watchdog and advocacy group.
The bill makes significant changes in how city ordinance and code violations are prosecuted.
The biggest change: Cities, not the state attorney, will be responsible for handling their own municipal code violations. Those codes can cover everything from curfew violations to prostitution.
And when a city prosecutes a violation in county court, it has to pay a $200 filing fee; the charges could add up quickly for cities that prosecute hundreds or thousands of violations each year.
Cities also will be required to provide a lawyer for indigents being prosecuted for municipal violations.
Across Florida, local governments are beginning to calculate how much the new law could cost them and how to best enforce their ordinances.
In Gainesville, key city officials, including City Manager Wayne Bowers and Gainesville Police Chief Norman Botsford, are scheduled to meet next week to discuss the impact of the new bill.
"I think it would have a serious financial impact on the city's budget," Gainesville City Attorney Marion Radson said.
The bill was meant to comply with a 1999 amendment to the Florida Constitution requiring the state to pay for the state's court system - now funded by Florida counties.
Because the State Attorney's Office will no longer handle violations, Radson said the city may be forced to hire new attorneys or contract with outside attorneys if it prosecutes ordinance violations.
Instead of going through the court system, Gainesville could choose to issue civil citations - an alternative that wouldn't cost the city money, but would mean violators couldn't be arrested or serve jail time for breaking a city ordinance.
Conn said even if someone is found guilty and fined for a violation, local governments may never recover the $200 court cost. "Judges are very reluctant to impose a $100 fine on top of a $200 court cost," he said.
Conn said the League of Cities is pushing to have the bill amended before it goes into effect on July 1, 2004.
Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, who helped draft the Senate version of the bill, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Ashley Rowland can be reached at 374-5095 or rowlana@ gvillesun.com.
Discussing the impact
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