Miami to settle over unconstitutional ordinance

By Joshua Ceballos | February 22, 2024

A Miami man experiencing homelessness is set to receive a $45,000 settlement from the City of Miami — and his lawsuit may lead to the repeal of a city law his attorneys and others have called “unconstitutional.”

Miami commissioners authorized the city to settle a federal lawsuit with 66-year-old Willie White, who is homeless. White sued the city in December for violating his First Amendment right to free speech by arresting him for begging near Maurice A. Ferré Park.

White was arrested three times in just seven months under a decade-old city law which prohibits “soliciting, begging, or panhandling” in the downtown business district. Just two months after White filed suit in federal court, the city commission unanimously agreed Thursday to settle without admitting fault on their part.

At the same public meeting, commissioners unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance to repeal the panhandling ban altogether without discussion. The item must pass on second reading for the ordinance to go into effect.

White’s attorneys with nonprofit civil rights group Florida Justice Institute (FJI) argued the ban violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as multiple courts in Florida and around the U.S. have found that asking for money and donations counts as protected speech.

Reached by WLRN over the phone, FJI attorney Ray Taseff declined to comment about the settlement before it is completely ironed out and approved by both parties.

“We can’t discuss specific details of negotiations. We look forward to resolving the case soon,” Taseff said.

White’s attorneys weren’t the only ones to say that the city’s panhandling ban violated freedom of speech. In fact, an appeals court had already ruled that the ban was unconstitutional more than six years ago in a separate lawsuit brought by a man experiencing homelessness named Andrew Toombs.

Despite the appeals court’s ruling in 2017, the law was never taken off the books and Miami police continued enforcing it.

In 2023 alone, MPD conducted at least 12 arrests under the panhandling ban, according to arrest records in White’s court filings and records from Miami-Dade County Circuit Court. That figure includes several repeat arrests, within a month or a few months of each other.

Only two months after White sued, the Miami City Attorney’s office recommended that the law be repealed.

“The City Attorney’s Office investigated these claims, the existing caselaw, and the lawsuit pursuant to Sections 18-221 through 18-232 of the City Code, and recommends that Section 37-8 of the City of Miami Code of Ordinances be repealed,” the office wrote on the Commission’s Feb. 22 agenda.

Latest lawsuit payout by the city

White’s settlement is just the latest payout the city has had to give in response to lawsuits brought by homeless Miamians.

Earlier this month, the city settled another case to the tune of $300,000. That lawsuit was brought by unhoused people whose personal belongings were trashed by city employees as part of city-sponsored homeless encampment cleanups. Four plaintiffs sued the city for destruction of property, claiming that items including medication, family photos and an urn with a relative’s ashes were thrown away.

Miami has faced legal issues for many years over its approach to homelessness. In 1988, the ACLU brought a class action lawsuit against the city on behalf of 5,000 homeless individuals who faced aggressive sweeps by Miami police. The city settled the case in 1998 and entered into an accord known as the Pottinger Agreement, which protected Miami’s homeless population from harassment and destruction of property.

A federal judge released Miami from the Pottinger Agreement in 2019, citing the city’s and Miami-Dade County’s efforts to house the homeless population.

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