A Florida sheriff’s office that threatened to arrest anyone with outstanding warrants who sought shelter ahead of Hurricane Irma is being sued by a man who was forced to submit to a background check before entering a shelter on Saturday.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office tweeted out their warnings in a series of tweets on Sept. 6. The department said they would be conducting checks at shelters set up for Hurricane Irma, and anyone found there with a warrant would be “gladly” escorted to jail.
“If you go to a shelter for #Irma and you have a warrant, we’ll gladly escort you to the safe and secure shelter called the Polk County Jail,” the department wrote in one of the tweets.
The lawsuit, filed on Saturday, claims the Polk County Sheriff’s Office “misused emergency shelters as unlawful pedestrian checkpoints to conduct suspicionless warrant / criminal background checks on human beings desperate for shelter to save their lives in the face of the worst hurricane in modern times.”
Carrie Horstman, a spokesperson for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, told the Daily Dot in an email that the department was in “hurricane recovery mode” and only answering “breaking news inquiries” related to the storm.
“We have heard about the lawsuit but haven’t yet read it,” she said.
The suit claims the checkpoints were unconstitutional.
“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 suit reads. “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.”
Andres Borreno is listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. He alleges that deputies of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office demanded that he submit to a background check before being let into a shelter on Saturday. He refused and never entered the shelter, the Washington Post reports.
Mario Williams, the director of the civil rights division of Nexus Attorneys and Borreno’s legal representative, said he hopes the case will block sheriff’s departments from using shelters as a means to run background checks in the future.
“Florida gets hurricanes every year,” Williams said. “Polk County will undoubtedly have to deal with a similar situation in the future. So we’re going to press forward and have a judge rule on the constitutionality of this so if they rule in our favor, he can never do it again, at least legally speaking.”
Williams said they filed the lawsuit electronically and are awaiting the courts, which are closed in many parts of Florida due to the storm, to approve of the suit.
“This has nothing to do with money, it has everything to do with making sure because we know catastrophic natural catastrophes seem to be getting worse and worse and we know this can happen again in the future,” Williams said. “We want to make sure that people don’t turn around the next time something like this happens, and when I say people I mean sheriff’s departments across this country, say ‘well Polk County did this, let’s do it over here.”
You can read the entire lawsuit here.
Update 4:36pm CT, Sept. 12: Added comment from attorney Mario Wiliams.