CLEVELAND - A Cuyahoga County judge will no longer force defendants to choose between going to the polls or going to jail.
Common Pleas Judge Cassandra Collier-Williams had been placing the unusual probation requirement on most defendants since about 2015.
Shortly after she began requiring defendants to register and vote, the ACLU of Ohio wrote the judge, asking her to discontinue the practice based on their belief that it violated a person’s First Amendment rights.
Even then, the judge took two years to end the probation provision. She ended the practice late last month.
“I didn’t want to continue doing it, if there’s a possibility that perhaps it should not be done,” Collier-Williams said in an interview.
It’s unclear how many criminal defendants received the order. Although no one was incarcerated for violating the order, the judge could conceivably jail someone for violating terms of probation.
One defendant said he risked jail and refused to register because he felt the probation order was unconstitutional.
"It should be my choice if I want to vote or not. I shouldn't be in fear of going to jail or being incarcerated because I chose not vote," said Rashaun Dawson, a Cleveland man placed on probation earlier this year by Collier-Williams.
Along with the usual restrictions, such as obeying the law and taking random drug tests, Collier-Williams ordered defendants to register with the elections board within 30 days.
In addition, the defendants were required to vote in all future elections, including primaries.
Court officials either could not, or would not, provide the judge’s complete probation records that would determine how many defendants received the order.
Channel 3 News first requested the public records in May, A partial list was provided last week. It's estimated that dozens of defendants were ordered to register, if needed, and vote.
Now, county probation officers have been ordered by Collier-Williams to tell defendants the requirement has been lifted.
Collier-Williams aborted the practice about the time Channel 3 News began questioning attorneys and court officials in late July.
“The rationale behind this…was just trying to make productive members of society and to give them something positive to do,” Collier-Williams said. "My opinion was unless I see a basis not to do it, then we'll continue doing it."
Wilson Huhn, a retired distinguished law professor at the University of Akron, said Collier-Williams probably made a “wise” decision to stop the voting requirement. He said voting is a protected right that should be separate from the criminal courtroom.
"Deciding not to vote is a very personal decision that a judge shouldn't interfere with,” he said. “It’s a fundamental right. The right to vote. Or not to vote.
“And it’s probably not appropriate for a criminal court to try to intrude on political matters.”
Mike Brickner, senior policy director with the ACLU of Ohio, said there have not been any legal challenges to Collier-Williams’ vote-or-else orders. And he would not criticize the judge for delaying her decision for two years.
Brickner instead applauded the judge for encouraging felons to vote, as permitted by Ohio. The ACLU, however, favored education over incarceration, he said.
“We were hopeful that she was going to change her policy and we’re very glad that she did,” he said. “If people choose not to vote, that shouldn't mean that they're sent directly back to jail."
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