Bay Pines VA Healthcare System
Marine Vet Starts Fresh After Stand Down Court
More than 500 Veterans poured into the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System’s (VAHCS) annual Stand Down for Homeless Veterans event at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center on April 8.
Some came to the event looking for medical care and job opportunities. Others came for housing assistance, meals, and haircuts. About 180 Veterans in attendance, however, registered for the activity to specifically take advantage of the Stand Down Court. Formerly homeless U.S. Marine Corps Veteran Arthur Hogue was one of them.
Conducted through a partnership between the Bay Pines VAHCS, 6th Judicial Circuit Court, Pinellas County Clerk of Courts, County Public Defender’s Office, Assistant State Attorney, and others, the Stand Down Court provides an opportunity for Veterans to speak with legal experts, a public defender, and others to address outstanding legal issues. In some cases, the court can reduce or dismiss fines or legal fees for Veterans with outstanding active misdemeanor warrants and other legal obligations. The court was first offered in 2014 and has grown in popularity ever since.
For Hogue, the court was an opportunity to get help with legal fees incurred over decades that had prevented the reinstatement of his Florida driver’s license - a piece of plastic absent from his wallet for the last 17 years.
Hogue’s struggles started shortly after leaving the military in 1991. Due to symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), he turned to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope. He served time in prison, only to reenter society facing financial struggles, symptoms of mental health disorders, addiction, and periods of homelessness.
“I had some DUI’s and other misdemeanors,” he said. “The fines were expensive, and I couldn’t pay them. I was homeless and felt like…what’s the point, I’ll never get this paid.”
While homeless, he racked up additional legal fees for trespassing - $500 for each charge.
“It was terrible,” he said reflecting on his past hardships. “How was I going to pay for the trespassing charge when I was homeless?”
Depression, low self-esteem, addictive behaviors, and loneliness increased as Hogue’s ability to connect with positive influences in his life decreased.
“I felt stupid. I couldn’t drive to see my family in Georgia. I couldn’t get a decent job. The bus only runs at certain times, and it’s hard to get across town early in the morning. I didn’t have a license, and never thought I could get my license back.”
Hogue learned about the 2017 Stand Down Court while attending clinical treatment in the Domiciliary Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program (DRRTP) at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center. He was one of the first Veterans to register for the court on the morning of April 8.
Reluctant to ask for help, but eager to enhance the quality of his life, Hogue patiently waited in line to present his case to Judge John D. Carballo of the 6th Judicial Circuit Court.
The bailiff called his number just before the lunch break. He took a deep breath. Let out a sigh, and told those around him, “Wish me luck.”
Less than thirty minutes later, he emerged from the makeshift courtroom smiling from ear to ear.
“I can’t believe it. The judge forgave my fines! It just happened. The State Attorney read my charges and the total of my fines, $9,900. The judge talked to me, and my fines are gone! I can get my license soon.”
Hogue shared the news with Veterans who remained in line, and health care staff he knew from his residential treatment.
He continued to shake his head in disbelief, as he read over the legal documents he received from the Clerk of Court.
“I have to pay $272 for the checks I bounced at [a local grocery story], and pay $60 to the DMV, but I can do that. That’s doable. They might make me go to the DUI class, but I don’t care. I will do anything to get my license back!”
When asked what he hopes to accomplish once he obtains his driver’s license, Hogue said, “I want to save my money for a car and get a part-time job so that I can feel better about myself. I need to meet positive people, and just feel alive again.”
Hogue is one of many Veterans who received legal support from this year’s Stand Down Court.
Judge Carballo saw 89 Veterans in his court on April 8 and scheduled the remaining 91 Veterans who attended the event, but could not be personally seen, for a contingency court planned for April 19.
In total on April 8, the judge waived approximately $190,000 in legal costs and fines, dismissed two warrants without arrests, reduced one Veteran’s felony charge to a misdemeanor charge, and concluded one Veteran’s house arrest sentence, which resulted in his ankle monitor being removed.
According to Patrick Diggs, Veterans Justice Outreach Coordinator, Bay Pines VAHCS, Hogue’s case is what the Stand Down Court is all about.
“Homeless Veterans and those at risk for homelessness are very vulnerable populations,” said Diggs. “Many are likely to accrue tickets, fines, and court costs related to their homelessness.
“By working together with local courts, outstanding cases with associated legal fees can be reviewed and likely waived or dismissed. Often, this allows Veterans to reinstate their driver’s licenses, pass background screenings for housing applications, and gives them peace of mind knowing that a huge weight has been lifted from their shoulders.”
Diggs said the court will continue to be a mainstay at the Bay Pines VAHCS’s annual Stand Down event to support the legal needs of Veterans residing in Pinellas County.To learn more about the homeless services available to Veterans, the Stand Down Court, or the Veterans Justice Outreach program, call 727-398-6661, extension 10306, or visit: www.baypines.va.gov/services/homeless.