Veterans amnesty court moves mountains

The men and women arrived by the vanload, accompanied by family or friends, some with nothing more than a backpack filled with their worldly possessions. Besides being fellow veterans, they shared a common mission – the need to remove an obstacle. The obstacles for some are minor inconveniences and easily remedied, but for others, these particular obstacles might as well be mountains.

The mountains are unpaid court fines, fees, or traffic tickets – all of which can affect a person’s ability to have the freedom that many take for granted – a valid driver’s license. No license means having to rely on others for transportation.

Volunteers at Veterans Stand Down event
Volunteers are ready to help clients navigate the services at the Veterans Stand Down Amnesty Court event.

Imagine not being able to answer yes on a job application asking if you have reliable transportation. Imagine having to ask for a ride to get groceries, attend a doctor’s appointment, or pick up a sick child from school. Imagine you can’t afford to splurge on things like ride sharing, a cab or even bus fare. Enter Circuit Judge Lon Arend, who hoped to level the playing field for the people that came before him Saturday morning at the annual Veterans Stand Down Amnesty Court at the Manatee County Judicial Center.

Arend said the Veterans Stand Down event provides an opportunity for veterans to interact with the judicial system to determine what – if anything – could be done to allow them to come into compliance with outstanding legal obligations.

As veterans waited outside the annex between the Historic Courthouse and Manatee County Judicial Center, they filled out forms with the hope that Judge Arend could help them resolve their legal issues.

The Veterans Stand Down event is typically held at the Manatee Fairgrounds in Palmetto, with the court portion making up just one part of a larger event. Arend said the organizers didn’t want to cancel the entire event, so they decided to hold the court event at the judicial center.

Although the pandemic caused organizers to scale down the event, they were pleased with the attendance.

“The turnout this year was fantastic,” Arend said. “I had the opportunity to meet and assist as many veterans (if not more) than I typically would see at the fairgrounds.”

Edwin Robinson, program director of Turning Points’ Yellow Ribbon Project, said this is the 20th year that local agencies have organized the Stand Down Amnesty Court event. Last year the event resulted in the removal of $25,000 in court fines/fees, Robinson said.

“I know and the clients know – and all of us that have been a part of the 20 Stand Downs in the past know – that this event … is a true game changer for our clients,” Robinson said. “It gives the clients one more barrier removed so that they can get on with their lives and begin to understand the freedom and the dignity that comes from true independence.”

In the courtyard, Veterans Administration staff verified a veteran’s status. Volunteers handed out toiletries, socks and other items to homeless veterans, and offered a secure area to check their bags prior to entering the judicial center to have their cases heard. Manatee County Rural Health Services offered information about medical services and general health information.

Once inside, Clerk of Court Angelina “Angel” Colonneso’s deputy clerks reviewed the court files and driving records of each veteran prior to their hearing with the judge.

Clerks review court records with veterans
Deputy clerks review court files and driving records with veterans prior to their appearance before Circuit Judge Lon Arend at the Veterans Amnesty Court event.

As most court hearings go, the proceedings were informal. Judge Arend wore a robe, but didn’t sit on an elevated bench as is customary. Instead, he sat at a table with a clerk and representatives from the state attorney’s office and the public defender’s office.

The judge warmly greeted each veteran as they sat down and asked them about their service and about the details that brought them there that day. In all, Judge Arend met with 28 of the 32 veterans that registered for the event. “I met men and women from all of the service branches and their service spanned from Vietnam through the Cold War and all the way up to people who were recently discharged,” Arend said.

“Every veteran has their own story, their own history and their own unique circumstances that brought them in the criminal justice system. Our goal with the event is to identify that story, find out where they are now and determine if we can provide them some assistance,” Arend said.

“I believe we did that where we could, and I am confident that everyone involved learned something about our local veterans,” Arend said.

Judge Lon Arend presides over Veterans Amnesty Court
Circuit Judge Lon Arend (pictured far right) conducts a hearing during Amnesty Court at the Veterans Stand Down event.

Manatee County Problem-Solving Court Director Alfred James said Veterans Court was established to serve veterans who found their way into the criminal justice system for a variety of reasons. “In the spirit of [problem-solving] courts, the goal has always been to provide opportunity for restoration for these veterans who may have fallen on hard times,” James said.

“In addition to those veterans that participate in our program there are many others who have been hindered from moving forward due to fines and fees in their past. It’s an honor to assist those who have served this country … to get their lives back on track,” James said.

Arend said he wants to thank the many people who gave their time to set up and assist in the success of the event. “I, as well as the veterans that attended, appreciate the wonderful work of representatives from the VA, Turning Points, the Office of the Public Defender, the Office of the State Attorney, the Manatee County Clerk’s Office, the problem-solving court staff, Court Administration and the court deputies from the Manatee Sheriff’s Office,” Arend said.

“Many of these folks have been doing this event with me for the last several years, many of them are veterans themselves – including all the deputies that volunteer for the event – and all of them request to be part of the event year after year. That tells you what this means to them, and it is our goal that the veterans who partake in the event find it helpful, useful and worthwhile.”

Arend said anyone that has served in a branch of the armed forces is a veteran. “This is true no matter how long you served or if you were ever deployed. This applies to Reservists, National Guardsmen and members of the Coast Guard.”

If you are a veteran that has served in any capacity and are interested in either the Stand Down or Veteran’s Court, you are welcome to see if you qualify for either program.

For more information on Veterans Court, please visit the Veterans Treatment Court webpage on the court’s website.