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9 Investigates deceptive tactics by the Seminole County clerk of courts

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SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. - 9 Investigates has discovered questionable tactics used by the Seminole County clerk of courts in collecting unpaid fines.

The Clerk of Courts Office is responsible for collecting money when you get a traffic ticket, but a Sanford woman told Channel 9’s Bianca Castro the office lied to her just to get her cash.

A salmon-colored official court notice could have passed as junk mail, but when Annamarie Vacca got it in the mail, she was shocked by what it said.

"You are driving on a suspended license," Vacca read aloud from the notice.

The notice came from the office of Maryanne Morse, the Seminole County clerk of courts.

The document said Vacca's driver’s license was suspended because of an unpaid fine she received for unvaccinated cats.

Vacca stopped driving, even to get to her chemotherapy appointments, out of fear she would be arrested.

“Here I had been driving for I didn't know how long on a suspended license, and I was scared to death,” Vacca said.

But as it turns out, the statement in the notice wasn't entirely true. The clerk's office sends out more than 100,000 "courtesy" notices each year to people who have unpaid civil traffic tickets.

In most cases, their licenses have been suspended, but the same notices also go out to people with other kinds of unpaid civil citations, including ones for which the state cannot suspend your license, like Vacca’s.

“They basically said it themselves, that, ‘We get more people to pay their fees this way,’” Vacca said. “Well, of course, because you're scaring the heck out of people.”

Castro met with Morse and asked her about the notice.

“Is this deceptive?” she asked Morse.

“No, it’s a courtesy to them,” Morse responded.

Morse defended her notice, saying only about 150 a year go to people with outstanding animal control fines. All they have to do is call the clerk’s office in order to find out their licenses are still valid, she said.

“We try to keep them advised that you've got a citation, you haven't taken care of it, please get in there and do something with it or there are going to be some ramifications, potentially,” Morse told Castro.

Castro checked and found that Seminole County is the only local county that sends out the “courtesy” notices. The collection rate on traffic fines in Seminole is about 90 percent, and the tactic isn't illegal.

Still, some remain critical of the notices being sent to people who are not at risk of a license suspension.

“What's most troubling with this is that the Clerk's Office, which is an arm of the court, would engage in this bureaucratic bullying,” said WFTV legal analyst Bill Sheaffer.

Meanwhile, Vacca is convinced this notice is anything but a "courtesy” letter.

“What they're doing is wrong,” she said. “It's lying.”

Vacca told Castro she still cannot afford the $500 cat vaccination fine because of her medical bills, but she was relieved to learn her license had not been suspended.

If your license is at risk of being suspended, you'll get a warning directly from the state’s department of motor vehicles.