Federal judge dissolves homeless protections from police harassment in Miami

A federal judge has dissolved the Pottinger Agreement, a consent decree that prevented Miami police from arresting the homeless for loitering.

The decision removes key protections for people living on the street within Miami city limits. The agreement had defined the way police in the city of Miami interacted with the homeless, protecting people living on the street from undue police harassment. Enacted in 1998 at the conclusion of a 10-year class action lawsuit filed by 5,000 homeless people being represented by lawyers volunteering for the American Civil Liberties Union, the agreement allowed the homeless to engage in “life-sustaining” activities, including sleeping on the sidewalk and urinating in public.

The city had moved to dissolved the agreement last year, arguing that the expansion of homeless services and enhanced training for police no longer made the agreement necessary. The city’s attorneys cited the growth of the residential population and increased commercial activity in downtown as reasons to end Pottinger.

In a curious argument, the lawyers also brought up the Sept. 11 attack and the Boston Marathon bombing while saying that homeless protections could threaten public safety.

ACLU lawyers disagreed and had moved to hold the city in contempt. Dozens of homeless people testified in court during multiple days of hearings that the city had discarded or destroyed their personal belongings during “cleanups” of sidewalks where they were living. Many said they lost identification, clothing and other personal papers. In another instance, a woman arrested for obstructing the sidewalk died while in police custody — a death activists say occurred because she did not receive proper medical attention in custody.

U.S. District Court Judge Federico Moreno issued his opinion Friday siding with the city, saying the consent decree is no longer needed because Pottinger succeeded in altering the city’s attitude and behavior toward the homeless for the better — changes that can be credited to the ACLU’s efforts.

“During the last 20 years, so much has changed in the how the city of Miami treats its homeless population that the Court finds that Pottinger Agreement should be indeed be terminated,” Moreno wrote. “The changes in the treatment of the homeless are the direct result of the vigorous challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union attorneys on behalf of the homeless in this case.”

In a 40-page opinion, Moreno pointed to the wealth of resources available for the homeless in the city, including shelter at Camillus House, medical services at the IDEA Needle Exchange and others.

Regarding the cleanups, Moreno wrote that “the city was compelled by the gravity of the unsanitary and unhygienic conditions to literally clean the streets for the betterment of common welfare, including the homeless, the city’s residents and its businesses.”

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said he considers the opinion an endorsement of the city’s efforts to be compassionate toward the homeless as a network of groups work to eventually have no people living on the street.

“I don’t look at it as what more can we do in terms of arresting and policing,” he told the Miami Herald. “It’s more about what we can we do to get to the functional zero.”