The Consequences of a Felony Welfare Fraud Conviction
The phrase “convicted felon” probably conjures up an image of someone charged with murder, rape, or drug trafficking. But there are many non-violent crimes that also qualify as felonies under Florida state law. For example, many types of fraud are prosecuted as felonies. This includes individuals charged with fraudulently obtaining government benefits.
Florida Appeals Court Reverses Revocation of Defendant’s Probation
Keep in mind, a felony conviction does not always equate to automatic jail time. A court may order someone convicted of, say, welfare fraud to a term of probation instead. But probation is not a “get out of jail free” card either. The defendant needs to strictly follow all of the probation conditions specified by the judge–otherwise, the defendant may find herself facing a lengthy jail term.
A recent decision by the Florida First District Court of Appeal, Banks v. State, offers a helpful illustration of what we’re talking about. This case involved a defendant convicted of felony welfare fraud. According to an affidavit filed by an investigator for the Florida Department of Financial Services, she lied on multiple applications for food stamp benefits, falsely informing the Department she was not employed when she did, in fact, have a job. As a result, the defendant “illegally received $5,648.00 in food stamp benefits” between 2012 and 2015.
The defendant ultimately pleaded “no contest” to the felony charge. The court placed the defendant on probation. One of the conditions of probation was that the defendant “will pay” certain court costs. In lieu of paying these costs directly, the defendant could work them off by performing community service at a rate of $10 per hour.
In August 2017, the defendant’s probation officer informed the court that the defendant violated this condition. Specifically, she still owed $671.00 in court costs and had neither paid that amount nor performed community service. The judge determined that the defendant “had the ability to perform community service hours,” and by failing to do so violated her probation. The judge therefore revoked probation.
But a three-judge panel of the First District reversed that decision. The majority held that probation can only be revoked when a defendant “willfully and substantially” violated a condition. With respect to court costs and other fines, a violation is only “willful” if the defendant “has the ability to pay the obligation and purposefully did not do so.” Here, the trial court never determined whether or not the defendant could actually pay the costs.
The majority went on to say that the defendant’s failure to perform community service in lieu of paying the costs did not qualify as grounds for revoking probation. Community service was offered as an option, not a requirement. That is to say, the probation order said the defendant “may” perform such service to reduce her debt. The dissenting judge on the panel disagreed, arguing that whether or not she paid the costs directly or worked them off in community service, she was still required to somehow “satisfy the probation condition.”
Speak with a Florida Criminal Defense Lawyer Today
If you are charged with a felony, you need to understand all of the legal ramifications of a conviction. An experienced Miami criminal defense attorney can review your situation and explain your options. Contact the Law Office of Julia Kefalinos today if you need legal advice or assistance today.