In the anxious days leading up to Hurricane Irma’s landfall in Florida, first responders flooded social media with information about safety and shelter. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office was no exception.
It warned about the potential dangers of filling a bathtub with water, posted information about hurricane shelter openings and retweeted an offer from a local fire department that was helping people fill up sandbags.
But Sheriff Grady Judd had a different message for anyone with a pending arrest warrant or a checkered past:
Now a man is suing the Polk County sheriff, saying the statements and deputies’ attempts to run background checks at hurricane shelters were unconstitutional and, worse, an unethical attempt to get desperate people to sacrifice their rights for safety.
“Sheriff Judd’s true motives are clear, and have been expressed by him explicitly: The purpose of these pedestrian ‘checkpoints’ is to conduct a fishing expedition to find any possible basis, no matter how tenuous, for issuing citations to or arresting human beings seeking refuge from a Class 5 hurricane,” the lawsuit says. “The problem is that these searches and seizure are not based on any suspicion of criminal conduct. Suspicion is not raised by trying to gain entry into an emergency shelter to save one’s life and the lives of family members.”
The suit was filed by Nexus Services, a company that connects people arrested for immigration offenses with bail bondsmen, and by Andres Borreno, who said Judd’s deputies demanded he submit to a background check before letting him into a shelter Saturday. Borreno refused and never entered the shelter, said his attorney, Mario Williams.
Further action on the lawsuit hasn’t been taken because courts were closed due to the storm. The company made a copy of the lawsuit available online.
Judd was managing his department’s response to the storm and would not be available for comment, said Scott Wilder, the director of communications for the sheriff’s office. But in a Facebook message, Wilder said the people who filed the lawsuit “are lying to you.”
“We have not read whatever they say they have filed,” the message said. “Whatever it is, it’s frivolous and without merit.”
Wilder defended the sheriff’s statements, saying he was trying to protect people seeking shelter from dangerous elements in the community. “We are not allowing sexual predators or offenders into the shelters,” Wilder said, adding that at any point, there are about 8,000 active warrants in Polk County.
“If, while manning a shelter, we are made aware of someone with an active warrant during a hurricane, or walking down the street, or in a store, we have to place them under arrest. A storm doesn’t give someone a free pass to violate the law,” he said.
But Williams said the sheriff had turned hurricane shelters into pedestrian checkpoints, which have been frowned upon by the courts. Going after criminals is important, Williams, the attorney, told The Washington Post, but “during these type of times, it’s not a time to have a protectionist policy. You should be ushering and saving and protecting as many people as possible.”
He added: “We’re just trying to get [Judd] to stop doing it. And then, honestly, even after all this is all over, I’m still going forward. I want this kind of practice declared unlawful.”
Williams also said the sheriff’s statements about sex offenders were an attempt to deflect attention from the thorny constitutional questions his statements raise. There are other, simpler ways to check for sex offenders short of running a criminal-background check, Williams said. Under Florida law, the driver’s licenses of people convicted of certain sex offenses have the words “SEXUAL PREDATOR” or another designation printed on them. To identify sex offenders, Judd’s deputies would simply have to glance at their driver’s licenses.
The more exhaustive measures violated people’s rights, Williams said, and worse, compromised their safety. “This is about ensuring that as many people as possible are safe as possible from the largest natural disaster we’ve seen in our time,” Williams said.