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In legal battle with homeless advocate, St. Petersburg wins court ruling over trespassing

The Rev. Bruce Wright was banned from visiting Williams Park after a trespassing arrest in 2013.
The Rev. Bruce Wright was banned from visiting Williams Park after a trespassing arrest in 2013.
Published Aug. 16, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — A federal appeals court ruled Monday that St. Petersburg police did not violate the First Amendment rights of the Rev. Bruce Wright, a homeless advocate who officers arrested for trespassing at Williams Park in 2013.

Wright works with the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign. In that 2013 encounter, police said Wright interfered with two officers who were trying to arrest a man on an active warrant. As officers warned Wright to back away, the other man ran away. Police charged Wright with two counts of resisting arrest and one count of trespassing.

The trespass citation banned Wright from entering the downtown park for one year. He unsuccessfully challenged the law at the state level in Pinellas County and at the federal level in U.S. District Court in Tampa, saying it restricted "his access to a traditional public forum where he wants to engage in expressive activity."

Wright has been a fixture downtown for years. He has spoken out against the way the city treats homeless people and criticized police methods of dealing with the homeless population.

"This is a significant ruling," Joseph Patner, head of litigation for the city, said Monday. "This is a tool that law enforcement uses to keep the park safe. This ordinance keeps criminals out of the park. This protects law-abiding citizens."

The city went as far as to suspend the ban to allow Wright to participate in a rally at Williams Park for a day in May 2013. He later pleaded guilty to the resisting arrest charges, but a judge withheld adjudication, sparing him from a conviction.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled Monday that the ban was lawful, even though it prevented Wright from doing outreach in the park.

"Wright is wrong," Chief Judge Ed Carnes wrote in the opinion. "The unlawful behavior that led to his arrest and trespass warning was not protected expression."

The judge further wrote that Wright's burden was mitigated because the ordinance allowed him to enter the sidewalks around Williams Park and the 141 other public parks in St. Petersburg.

The city's ordinance bans first-time violators from a location for one year. The second offense brings a two-year ban. The city, Patner said, continued to issue the citations during Wright's appeal.

During the 2013 encounter with police, according to the department, Wright pulled out a cellphone and yelled, ignoring warnings from the officers. Upon being told he was going to jail, police said, Wright braced his body, pulled away from the officers and tried to run. He continued to try to fight after the officers wrestled him to the ground and handcuffed him.

On Monday, Wright said he plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It's absolute nonsense," he said. "Quite frankly, I'm a bit saddened. It's a sad day for First Amendment rights."

He added: "I'll be at the park Monday night."

Contact Mark Puente at or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.


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