Vernard Sands was sitting on a plastic crate at NE 79th Street and Miami Court in Little River on November 11, 2016, when a Miami Police car rolled up. The cops told the 35-year-old homeless man he was breaking the law — by illegally sitting on a crate. Then, a cop identified in police reports as Officer Mclean cuffed Sands, charged him with "unlawful use of a dairy case," a misdemeanor, and took him to jail. Sands spent the night behind bars, all because he had been sitting on a crate.
Sands' ordeal isn't uncommon. In the past three years, Miami-area police have sent at least 49 people to jail for "unlawful use of a dairy case" (AKA sitting on one), according to booking data from the Miami-Dade Department of Corrections. During that same time, 58 people were arrested for possession of a shopping cart.
Both minor charges, activists say, are used almost exclusively to hassle homeless people, who often sit on crates and use carts to carry their possessions (or on Miami Beach, to hawk coconuts). They say the arrests cost taxpayers, clog jails, and do little to ease homelessness in Miami.
"Punishing people for sitting on a milk crate is just another way Miami is criminalizing homelessness," says Jackie Azis, staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida.
Miami-area cops have a well-deserved reputation for harassing the homeless. In the 1980s, Miami police routinely arrested transients for minor misdemeanors like being in a park after dark and sitting on sidewalks in a blatant effort to scare them into leaving. The problem was so bad that advocates sued and eventually forced the city to sign a resolution, called the Pottinger Agreement, which forces police to offer the homeless help and forbids them from arresting the homeless simply for living on the streets.
But this year Miami police have repeatedly been accused of harassing homeless people, while city leaders have moved to get rid of Pottinger altogether.
While charging the homeless with sitting on crates or pushing shopping carts is technically allowed under the Pottinger Agreement, it goes against the spirit of the deal, Azis argues.
"These are the types of actions that really were at the heart of Pottinger," Azis says. "It appears the city is still using laws to harass homeless individuals in an effort to remove them from sight. These types of actions don't just hurt the individuals who were arrested but hurts our communities. It does nothing to address the root cause of homelessness or to help find a solution to homelessness in Miami."
The charges cost taxpayers and rarely stick. According to the Florida Department of Corrections, it costs $55.80 a day or $20,367 a year to keep someone locked up in Florida. Most dairy crate and shopping cart cases end with the charges being dismissed by the prosecution. Plus Miami police officers spend hours of their time arresting and booking homeless people for a charge that will in all likelihood be dropped.
A review of ten such cases shows that the defendants were often homeless and were simply sitting around or pushing a shopping cart along a sidewalk before their arrest.
Earlier this year, on January 18, MPD officers spotted 65-year-old Modesto Paez-Diaz sitting on a milk crate in Little Havana.
Because the crates and the shopping carts are stamped with company logos, having one in your possession — even if you just saw it sitting on the side of the road or pulled it out of a dumpster — is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison. (McArthur Dairy and its parent company, Dean Foods, are most frequently cited in police reports as the victims of Floridians' heinous dairy crate theft. Neither company returned messages for this story.)
Paez-Diaz ended up spending the night in jail. As usual, the next morning a judge dismissed the case. Paez-Diaz still owes the city a $50 public defender fee, despite applying for indigent status.
The bogus arrests aren't restricted to Miami city limits. Just before Christmas in 2015, 35-year-old Shane Burnett was pushing a shopping cart filled with his possessions outside a mall in Doral. Burnett, who the police report notes
"Doral CST detectives observed defendant Shane Burnett loitering in front of Miami-Dade Library with his possessions inside of a red shopping cart belonging to victim Sports Authority. The defendant was arrested and charged accordingly," wrote police Officer M. Brajdic in the incident report.
Burnett spent the night in jail. The charges were eventually dismissed, though Burnett never recovered his possessions confiscated by Doral Police that day.
Carlos Roldos ran afoul of the law on August 21, 2016, as he sat on a milk crate on the corner of West Fourth Avenue and 29th Place. Then the police spotted him.
"I observed Roldos... sitting on a dairy crate. The dairy crate was stamped with the trademark McArthur Dairy logo. Roldos was arrested and transported to jail," wrote Officer F. Alvarez in the incident report.
Like so many others, Roldos spent the night in jail, only to have the prosecutor drop the charges the next day. The Miami-Dade County clerk's office still lists Roldos as owing a $50 public defender fee.
On May 4, 2017,
Most of the agencies responsible for recent arrests for illegal crate-sitting or shopping carts didn't return messages from New Times about their policies on booking homeless people for the minor crimes. An MPD spokesperson declined to comment.
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On Thursday, under the 395 overpass in Overtown where dozens of homeless people spend the day escaping the sun, several said they had been harassed by cops simply for being homeless.
"One time I was sitting on a milk crate, and they [police officers] came up out of their car and told me, 'You can't sit on that,'" said Charlie, an elderly homeless man who declined to give his last name. "So I had to sit on the ground. I'm not doing too well. I have hepatitis C, so my back hurts if I sit too low or too high. I threw the crate over the fence; they didn't arrest me. It's up to the officer."
Another man, Joseph Simmons, said, "They come here and throw our stuff away." Asked whether he had ever seen anyone
"They should be catching people that are robbing and killing, not people who are just trying to live and let live," Charlie said.