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New Miami-Dade camping law may clash with federal law protecting homeless

When Miami-Dade commissioners voted unanimously this month to ban overnight camping at “county facility property,” they opened the doors to debate about how police should apply the measure to homeless people.

The action was a clear shot at the Occupy Wall Streeters who flooded public spaces, including outside County Hall, in the summer of 2011.

In addition to making it illegal to camp on county property, the measure toughens permitting rules for public gatherings and permissible “free speech’’ zones. It also gives police the authority to arrest violators, including the homeless.

But a 25-year-old court ruling could present a conflict, some legal observers say. A 1988 federal court decision in the Pottinger vs. The City of Miami case found that Michael Pottinger and about 6,000 other homeless people in Miami could not be harassed or punished for occupying public property because doing so would violate their fundamental right to travel, and to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

The new ordinance specifically provides that if police direct a homeless person occupying a county facility to leave, the officer first must look for sleeping space for the homeless person at a county shelter. If there is none, or if the person refuses the option, he or she can be arrested for trespassing if they remain or return to the space.

An ACLU lawyer said the measure could again open the door for police to harass and arrest homeless people.