The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida’s Sarasota Chapter sued the city and its police department recently. The suit is on behalf of six homeless men. It alleges local ordinances discriminate against the homeless.
The laws being challenged deal with lodging and panhandling.
The lawsuit contends certain Sarasota ordinances violate the homeless’ constitutional rights.
Adam Tebrugge is a staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida. He said the lodging ordinance basically outlaws sleep and violates the plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment rights. That amendment protects against cruel and unusual punishment.
“You can’t criminalize an essential function of day- to-day life… We all need a place to sleep and if you're arresting people because they don’t have a proper place to sleep, you’re violating the Eighth Amendment,” he said.
The ordinance says police can summon or arrest someone staying on public or private land without the owner’s consent. They first must offer the individual transportation to a shelter.
But, the lawsuit said there’s only the Salvation Army in downtown Sarasota. It claims that facility is usually full.
And it said the Salvation Army does not have enough beds to house the more than 1,300 homeless people documented in a 2015 survey.
That’s a county-wide survey, but more than 75 percent of those documented live within the City of Sarasota.
At a Sarasota City Commission meeting in October, city attorney Robert Fournier said there’s nothing in the law requiring the city have that many beds.
“This is just a new theory that has been posited elsewhere, but there’s not case that actually holds that. I think they’re again pushing the limits of the law,” he said.
Instead, he said under the law a person can only be charged if there is an available shelter and they refuse to go.
Fournier spoke with WGCU over the phone, but declined to record an interview.
Read the lawsuit below: