Miami Heads To Federal Court To Get Permission To Arrest Homeless People

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The City of Miami has taken to federal court to undo a 15-year-old legal agreement that protected homeless people from undue arrest and harassment by the authorities. The city is concerned the homeless population is stunting downtown's growth, and want the courts to alter a 1988 settlement that bars Miami police from arresting homeless people for such "involuntary, harmless acts'' without first offering them an alternative location to lay their head.

The city wants more leeway when it comes to being able to legally cleanup homeless people's belongings, or even dispose of them. In addition the city will ask to completely exclude sexual predators from protection under the old law.

The city's Downtown Development Authority says downtown's homeless population is stunting the area's growth. DDA Attorney Jay Solowsky tells the Herald it is "the single most significant issue we are facing downtown."

Police argue that the homeless are scaring not only families, but workers. Fans pouring into the American Airlines Arena for Heat games, meanwhile, are being met with more aggressive panhandlers blocking sidewalks and relieving themselves in public.

Which is all well and good, but the whole reason the city acceded to the so-called Pottinger Settlement back in 1988 was because the ACLU made a compelling case that police were abusing the city's most vulnerable citizens. Back then, police routinely rounded up homeless, dumped their belongings in the trash and charged them with loitering.

What's more, advocates say that settlement has decreased the homeless population from 6,000 to just 351 -- with many of those 351 only still on the streets because they refuse assistance. The act makes it illegal to arrest any homeless person, unless they refuse shelter and board.

Ron Book, chairman of Miami-Dade County's Homeless Trust doesn't think putting Homeless people in jail is answer at all. "I don't know what good it does putting those people in jail,'' Book tells the Herald. "I don't think it's wise, and I've told them that clearly and repeatedly.''

Commissioner Francis Suarez argues changing the law would actually help the city do a better job of aiding the homeless. "What this does is gives us a greater ability to take care of them," he said.

The changes would allow police to detain those chronically homeless if they refuse help three times in 180 days, seize and destroy property left in public spaces, and allow them to detain those chronically homeless if they refuse help three times in 180 days.

Assistant City Attorney Warren Bittner said, the city "must show a substantial change in circumstances" to change the Pottinger settlement. It will be up to the authorities to prove the changes are needed, and that they would benefit the city and its growth.

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