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Lawsuit over St. Petersburg's treatment of homeless is dropped

ST. PETERSBURG — A federal lawsuit that accused the city of St. Petersburg of violating the rights of homeless people was dropped Monday when the plaintiffs dismissed the remaining two allegations.

"As far as the trial court level is concerned, it's done," said Karen Cunningham, director of pro bono services for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, one of three legal groups that litigated the case. "We will be considering an opportunity for appeal or some other good to come out of this."

But the plaintiffs won't be able to appeal the charges they dismissed Monday. Those allegations were that police arrest people for public urination even though public restrooms aren't available to them — making it cruel and unusual punishment — and that the city has been engaging in illegal searches and seizures by, among other things, asking for identification for no reason.

The case is still technically open until federal Judge Steven Merryday issues a final judgment, but Monday's dismissal was viewed by city officials as a validation of a series of ordinances that try to eliminate types of behavior often associated with homelessness.

"Absent an appeal, the case is over," said Joe Patner, an assistant city attorney who handled the case. "Obviously, I'm pleased with the fact that it was shown, in my opinion, that the allegation the police are harassing the homeless just isn't true."

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

That left two remaining counts from 11 that were in the original lawsuit, which was filed last year. One reason they remained was the city hadn't filed a motion to dismiss them. Four days after Merryday's ruling, however, city attorneys did just that. The city claimed in a March 15 motion that public restrooms were in fact available when arrests were made for public urination.

Of the 229 people arrested in two years, only 15 arrests occurred at times when public restrooms were closed, and that total included people who weren't homeless, according to the city's motion. Patner said in those 15 cases, shelters were open that provided restrooms. As for illegal searches and seizures, the city's motion argued that there was no evidence that there had been any violation of constitutional rights, only a "pervasive and persistent pattern of unlawful activity by the plaintiffs."

The response by the plaintiffs came in the form of the dismissals on Monday. Asked why they were dismissed, Cunningham said she couldn't discuss case strategy.

"We do hope we've sparked some dialogue for the city of St. Petersburg in how it treats its homeless population," Cunningham said.

Patner said the dismissal saved the city the trouble of litigating a case that could have gone before a jury in July. But the plaintiffs wouldn't have been allowed to appeal the counts that Merryday dismissed until the case was complete. Dismissing the case now allows them to appeal sooner if they choose, Patner said.

The dropped suit means the city can now discuss publicly how to deal with what many consider to be a growing problem. Last year on the campaign trail, Mayor Bill Foster promised he'd make homelessness a major priority in his administration. But he hasn't shared what his plan will be because he has been advised by City Attorney John Wolfe to limit public discussion of the issue until the legal case was resolved.

"The (case) was the only reason we were very cautious with the providing of comfort and care for the homeless," Foster said. "Assuming that this is over and their appeal rights have run, I'm ready to make certain recommendations to the City Council as it pertains to the compassionate care of the homeless."

Foster said he won't provide any details of his plan until he's gets the go-ahead from Wolfe.

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

Lawsuit over St. Petersburg's treatment of homeless is dropped 03/29/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 29, 2010 10:10pm]
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