The Phoenix Flyer

ACLU sues city of Ocala over policies that criminalize the homeless

By: - September 19, 2019 2:55 pm

.Photo credit: Michael Lyle

Claiming that Ocala’s “unconstitutional” ordinances force homeless people to leave town or land in jail, the ACLU of Florida, the Southern Legal Counsel and another attorney filed a class action lawsuit in federal court today against the Central Florida city.

The legal groups say the ordinances violate both the U.S. and Florida’s Constitution.

What’s called an “open lodging” ordinance states that a person cannot lodge or take temporary shelter on private or public property without permission.

The class action suit was filed on behalf of three homeless individuals who have collectively spent 210 days in jail and been assessed over $9,000 in fines, fees, and costs due to the city’s enforcement practices.

Another 279 individuals in Ocala are unnamed plaintiffs in the case who have been or will be subjected to the city’s “unlawful policies” because they’re also homeless.

“The city of Ocala has adopted and enforced unconstitutional ordinances as part of a deliberate campaign of arresting people in a broken-windows policing strategy called ‘Operation Street Sweeper,’” Kristen Anderson, litigation director for Southern Legal Counsel, said in a statement.

Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn published a column in the Ocala Star-Banner last year, in which he embraced the “Broken Windows” method of policing enforcement policy that targets minor offenses such as vandalism, public drinking and panhandling to “create an atmosphere of lawful order, thereby reducing more serious crimes,” he wrote.

The policy became nationally famous after it was adopted by New York City’s police department in the early 1990s, under then Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

The ACLU and Southern Legal Counsel attorneys are calling for an injunction to have Ocala police officers stop arresting, citing or otherwise enforcing the ordinance against the homeless. They also want the court to compel the city to stop issuing trespassing orders, which they claim has been “banning homeless people from public squares and parks and making their mere presence in public a crime.”

“The City of Ocala received the information this morning and is currently working with our attorneys to review the details of the documents,” Ocala spokesperson Ashley Dobbs told the Phoenix in an email. “The City will not be able to provide any feedback until all information has been reviewed.”

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court Middle District of Florida.

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.