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Federal judge dismisses much of homeless lawsuit against St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — Federal Judge Steven Merryday tossed out nine allegations in a federal lawsuit that accuses St. Petersburg of violating the rights of homeless people by enforcing a series of punitive ordinances, scoring what appears to be a major victory for the city.

Merryday also denied class action status for the lawsuit, meaning the scope of those making the allegations is limited to Anthony Catron, Michael Lile, Jo Anne Reynolds, Raymond Young and William Shumate, a popular homeless leader in downtown St. Petersburg known for repairing bicycles.

Essentially, Merryday upheld the city's right to arrest people for sleeping during the day in downtown public rights of way and storing personal property on public land. The city also has the right to ban people from city property if they had committed crimes there before.

Assistant City Attorney Joseph Patner called the rulings significant, saying it showed the ordinances that were alleged to be unconstitutional were appropriate.

Merryday wrote in his ruling Wednesday that individuals don't have a constitutional right to store personal belongings on public land. The city's ordinance, he wrote, gives people 36 hours to remove items before confiscation and allows them a month to reclaim seized property.

"The risk is exceedingly low that an individual will be unjustly deprived of personal belongings," Merryday wrote.

Banning those previously arrested from public buildings and parks was legal, Merryday wrote, because government has a right to control the use of public land "for its own lawful nondiscriminatory purpose."

Three groups represent the five homeless plaintiffs: the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, out of Washington, D.C., and the Southern Legal Counsel and Florida Institutional Legal Services out of Gainesville.

Catron was cited in 2006 and 2007 for trespassing and is banned from city parks. Young got a warning for having too much property, which included two suitcases, bags, clothes, groceries and other belongings. He was told the city's limit was two bags, a backpack and one blanket. Reynolds was removed from public property because she had too many belongings. Shumate had his property confiscated three times. Lile was arrested for public urination, and served five days in jail in 2008.

"We're obviously disappointed with the court's decision," said Catherine Bendor, an attorney with the National Law Center. "We'd prefer that the city devote its resources to alternatives to criminalizing homelessness. We're considering our options at this point with respect to this litigation."

Last month, Kirsten Clanton, an attorney with Southern Legal Counsel, told the Times that St. Petersburg's ordinances were exceptionally onerous.

"They make it difficult for people to move out of homelessness by putting them in jail for just trying to live," she said. "It costs more to put them in jail then it does to actually address the problem."

Two allegations remain: that police have no right to ask homeless people for identification and that it's cruel and unusual punishment to arrest people for public urination when restrooms aren't available. Patner said the city will file a motion asking for those to be dismissed as well.

More litigation may be ahead, according to city attorney John Wolfe. He told the City Council on Thursday that the same legal groups are expected to challenge the panhandling ordinance.

Bendor said her office wasn't pursuing a legal challenge.

Wolfe has told city officials not to talk publicly about the suit or even discuss the general issue of the homeless.

"My concern is that something they say may be misconstrued" and affect the lawsuit, he said.

As a result, the city is in something of a holding pattern in dealing with a problem that most say is growing worse by the day. Council members can only discuss it privately, as they did Feb. 11 in a closed attorney-client meeting.

Mayor Bill Foster is limited in explaining how he will tackle the issue, which he said would be a priority in his administration. In December, he said he'd consider building permanent bathrooms at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul South Pinellas.

But now, with the litigation, those bathrooms are "off the table," Foster said Thursday.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Federal judge dismisses much of homeless lawsuit against St. Petersburg 03/11/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 12:18am]
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