Special to South Florida Times

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Florida have filed public records requests with judicial officials in Florida to determine whether homeowners’ constitutional rights are being violated during foreclosure proceedings and are being unlawfully removed from their homes.

An ACLU statement said in Florida almost half-a-million foreclosure cases are pending. The Legislature recently spent more than $9 million to create special foreclosure courts, staffed by retired judges, with the intent of speeding through a backlog of cases.

The group points to media reports in Florida and around the country indicating “rampant error and fraud in the foreclosure process.”  The courts should take particular care with foreclosure cases, it said, adding, “Instead, in the rush to push foreclosure cases through the courts, Florida may be taking shortcuts and, in the process, forsaking constitutionally-required due process protections.”

“It is disturbing that Florida may be implementing less exacting due process protections at a time when widespread flaws in the foreclosure system illustrate the need for increased vigilance and strict procedural safeguards,” Larry Schwartztol, staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, said in the statement.

“These records requests aim to shed light on whether recent changes to Florida’s handling of foreclosure proceedings are violating the due process rights of homeowners,” Schwartztol said.

The public records requests were filed with the Office of the State Court Administrator and the chief judges of all 20 of Florida’s circuit courts. They seek access to, among other things, all documents related to special court systems created to dispose of foreclosure cases and the rules and procedures in place that govern those systems.

According to the statement, government data show that the foreclosure crisis across the country has disproportionately imp-acted communities of color.  The ALU cites a recent report by the Center for Responsible Lending indicating that nearly eight percent of African Americans and Latinos have lost their homes to foreclosures, compared to 4.5 percent of whites.

Additionally, the indirect losses in wealth that result from foreclosures as a result of depreciation to nearby properties will also disproportionately impact communities of color. The report estimates that, between 2009 and 2012, the African American and Latino communities will be drained of $194 billion and $177 billion, respectively, in these indirect “spillover” losses alone, the report said.

“Communities of color in Florida and across the country are hit hardest if courts disregard the kinds of protections that are meant to uphold people’s basic constitutional rights,” said Muslima Lewis, senior staff attorney and director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Florida.

“Getting the documents we are requesting will be an important first step toward exposing and addressing any systemic injustices that may exist in the Florida foreclosure court systems.”