After arresting hundreds of homeless people for sleeping outside, City of Ocala faces class-action lawsuit

After arresting hundreds of homeless people for sleeping outside, City of Ocala faces class-action lawsuit
Photo via Ocala/Marion County/Facebook
Like breathing and eating, sleeping is a necessary function for basic human survival, but that hasn’t stopped the City of Ocala from criminalizing people with literally nowhere to lay down.

Last week, homeless advocate groups including the Southern Legal Counsel, attorney Andy Pozzuto, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida filed a lawsuit in federal court against the City of Ocala, which has so far arrested hundreds of homeless people for sleeping outside in public areas.

“The city of Ocala has adopted and enforced unconstitutional ordinances as part of a deliberate campaign of arresting people in a broken-windows policing strategy called ‘Operation Street Sweeper’,” said Kirsten Anderson, litigation director for Southern Legal Counsel, in a press release. “With Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn’s public endorsement, the city has been systematically enforcing its open lodging ordinance to make hundreds of arrests, imposing excessive fees and fines, as well as lengthy jail sentences.”
The 67-page class-action lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, was on behalf of named plaintiffs Patrick McCardle, Courtney Ramsey, Anthony Cummings and more than 200 other homeless people who were arrested under the city’s open lodging ordinance, a rule that actually makes it illegal to sleep, and in some cases even rest, in public spaces and parks.

One major focus of the lawsuit takes issue with the ordinance’s overall selective nature, like how it’s only illegal to sleep outside if the person reports being homeless, while allowing others to sleep outside without being jailed or fined.

According to the lawsuit, one homeless plaintiff was fined a total of $3,690.50 in fines and court costs after spending 148 hours in jail, for 10 counts of “open lodging.”

“These are people who need support, housing, jobs, and services,” said Chelsea Dunn, an attorney with Southern Legal Counsel. “Instead, they are caught in a seemingly never-ending cycle of jail, debt, and other collateral consequences. The city of Ocala needs to provide adequate shelter and social services instead of trying to solve homelessness through arrests and harassment.”
The complaint is arguing that the city's ordinance is in direct violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, infringes on the plaintiffs' right for due process, and "alleges violations of the Equal Protection Clause and the Florida constitutional right to intrastate travel based on the city’s policies of targeting and arresting homeless individuals with intention of driving them from Ocala.”

Mayor Guinn – who, on an unrelated note, approved an idiotic Confederate Memorial Day last April – actually defended the city’s homeless crackdown in a column published by the Star-Banner last year, arguing that targeting petty crime is good for “an atmosphere of lawful order.”

“In essence, the Broken Windows theory suggests that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages more crime and disorder, including serious crime,” said Guinn. “The theory suggests that policing methods which target minor offenses such as vandalism, public drinking and panhandling help create an atmosphere of lawful order, thereby preventing more serious crimes.”

A survey conducted over the last two years by the Marion County Homeless Council found that Ocala's homeless population had more than 330 homeless adults living without children, and half of these did not have shelter.

Since initiating “Operation Street Sweeper” last December, the Ocala Police Department has made 223 “quality of life” arrests, 87 of those were for open lodging, 41 for panhandling and 20 for trespassing, reports the Star-Banner.

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