Fla. city agrees to stop targeting homeless

Posted at 1:15 PM, Feb 13, 2013
and last updated 2013-02-13 09:01:49-05

SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) - A judge ruled Wednesday that the city of Sarasota can't stop homeless people from holding up signs or soliciting for money because it would violate their First Amendment rights.

Judge Fredrick Defuria signed the temporary injunction and the city has agreed to abide by the order, which stops officials and police from targeting the city's homeless population. The judge said that the police cannot "interfere with the exercise of First Amendment Rights," which includes people holding signs on public sidewalks and soliciting assistance.

The American Civil Liberties Union recently brought a legal challenge on behalf of two homeless men, saying authorities were trying to harass the homeless into leaving the city. The ACLU uncovered a recent surveillance video showing an officer throwing a homeless man against a metal grate. They also allege that officers sent messages to each other on the police department's communication system referring to "bum hunting."

According to Michael Barfield, who is the chair of the legal panel of the Sarasota ACLU chapter, the lawsuit was filed after police arrested two homeless men who were on public property asking for money. One of the men displayed a sign that said, "Homeless. Any work is a blessing."

Barfield said that in the past 18 months, the city has targeted the homeless by removing benches and banning smoking in downtown parks. One homeless man was arrested for charging his cellphone on a city-owned outlet in a park. The charge was later dropped. The ACLU has filed five lawsuits against the city - some have been settled and the smoking ban has been struck down by a judge.

Barfield cheered Wednesday's temporary injunction.

"It's just another example of where the city's past strategy to the homeless is a failed strategy," he said. "Hopefully they will start looking at alternatives and not attempt to arrest their way out of the problem, or eradicate the homeless through use of the criminal justice system."

Sarasota Police didn't have an immediate comment.