The City of Miami, concerned that loitering homeless people are stunting downtown growth, will go to federal court in an attempt to undo major provisions of a historic legal agreement that for 15 years has protected the homeless from undue arrest and harassment by police.
Miami commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to petition the courts to alter a landmark settlement in the 1988 Pottinger v. Miami case, in which 5,000 homeless people and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city, contending that the police practice of sweeping them off the streets and dumping their belongings for loitering, sleeping on sidewalks or other minor offenses was unconstitutional.
The case, settled by consent decree in 1998, led to a significant expansion of public services to the homeless that has been held up as a national model. The settlement also bars Miami police from arresting homeless people for such “involuntary, harmless acts’’ without first offering them an available bed in a shelter.
Under the resolution adopted Thursday, which drew little to no public attention before the commission meeting, the city will hire an outside attorney to ask a federal judge to grant police greater latitude to detain homeless people and seize and dispose of their belongings. The city will also ask the judge to exclude sexual predators from the Pottinger settlement’s protections.
The effort has been spearheaded by the city’s semi-autonomous Downtown Development Authority, which is tasked with helping the city’s downtown businesses grow. Attorney Jay Solowsky, working with the DDA on a pro bono basis, told commissioners that homelessness is “the single most significant issue we are facing downtown.” Marc Sarnoff, chairman of the city commission and the DDA, works in Solowsky’s office.The city move comes as new downtown condos have attracted tens of thousands of residents, with dozens more residential towers now in development.
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