County, Police Broke Law by Blocking Residents From Government Center, Attorneys Say

On Friday, the morning after Mayor Carlos Gimenez kowtowed to Donald Trump's demand that Miami stop protecting undocumented immigrants, a crowd descended on County Hall to protest. That's a pretty normal occurrence in America, where residents have the right to tell their elected leaders they're wrong.

What the crowd found at County Hall that morning was far from normal, though: The public building was on virtual lockdown. Police had cordoned off streets for blocks — even shuttering the nearby Metromover stop — and wouldn't allow anyone to enter. Even U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison was briefly detained outside the locked doors.

To the protesters, it seemed a huge overreaction to a relatively small, peaceful crowd. In fact, the extreme lockdown of a public facility was an unconstitutional breach of the First Amendment, says a group of local attorneys in a letter sent to the county mayor and other officials.

"The suppression of political speech should never be taken lightly, and least of all in times when the President of the United States has continually pledged to harm marginalized communities from immigrants and Muslims to women and communities of color," the attorneys write.

Gimenez's spokesman didn't immediately reply to a request for comment on the letter, which was also addressed to Miami-Dade Police Department chief Juan Perez and county attorneys. The attorneys' demands are more than just rhetorical — another protest of Gimenez's move is planned for this afternoon at County Hall, potentially testing the police's response yet again.

It's still not clear who ordered the lockdown. Gimenez was out of town on Friday, leaving his spokesperson to answer questions about his order to end Miami's sanctuary city program. (Since 2013, Miami had declined to hold suspects wanted on federal immigration charges because the feds wouldn't reimburse the county for the extra jail time. Now, the county will hold those suspects for up to 48 hours.)

A few dozen residents and activists showed up at County Hall around 1:30 p.m. on Friday with a letter for Gimenez. They were joined by Ellison, the Minnesota rep and national chair of the Democratic Progressive Caucus. But police wouldn't let any of them enter County Hall. That move crossed the line of violating free speech, the attorneys argue.

"Miami-Dade officials made the preemptive decision to barricade doors and refuse entrance to those gathered solely based on the content of their speech," write the attorneys, who note that other residents who weren't protesting were allowed inside during the lockdown. "This decision, which was renewed and reinforced for over three hours, constitutes an illegal prior restraint of speech.”

Police officers made incorrect assertions to those gathered that County Hall wasn't public property, the attorneys say.

"Those gathered were told Government Center was private property (it is not), that the building was closed to all (it was not), and that they could not enter because they would be disruptive — an assertion that was inconsistent with the peaceful behavior of those gathered there," they write.

The attorneys ask that police be given a "clear directive" that County Hall is open to all residents at all times.

The letter isn't the only blowback Gimenez faces over his immigration order. In addition to the planned protest this afternoon, the County Commission — which originally authorized the sanctuary city plan in 2013 — could vote against the mayor's move last week.

Commissioner Daniela Levine Cava sent Gimenez her own letter yesterday demanding a briefing on the change as soon as possible with more information about how it will affect community policing and the county budget.

Here's the full letter sent to Gimenez by the local attorneys:

Letter by Tim Elfrink on Scribd

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink