ACLU, Cleveland settle lawsuit filed by homeless

Monday, February 7, 2000

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the city of Cleveland have settled a lawsuit filed by four homeless men and an activist group, who alleged that city officials violated the constitutional rights of homeless people by sweeping them from downtown sidewalks.

On Dec. 23, Lynn Key, Thomas Jackson, Jason Maiden, Ronald Russell and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless sued the city in federal court, contending that city officials were violating homeless people’s constitutional rights, including First Amendment free-association rights.

The complaint in Key v. City of Cleveland alleged: “In being ordered to disperse or move on, or threatened with arrest, Plaintiffs have been denied the opportunity to meet with other members of the homeless community, and with volunteers, church members and charitable members of the public who from time to time visit and provide spiritual and material assistance to the homeless, in violation of their right to free association guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

The complaint alleged that city police officers were engaging in a systematic policy of discrimination against homeless people and that the policy was unconstitutionally vague.

“The use of [irrelevant] ordinances and statutes, coupled by an unwritten policy requiring the homeless to move on at the whim of police officers, subjects the homeless to a vague, standardless and effectively arbitrary exercise of police power, in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the complaint read.

Under the settlement reached on Feb. 2, the city agreed not to harass homeless people who engage in innocent conduct.

The consent decree provides that “the City, through its Police Department, agrees not to arrest, or threaten to arrest or detain, any individuals, including homeless individuals, for performing innocent, harmless, inoffensive acts such as sleeping, eating, lying, or sitting in or on public property.”

“This is an unqualified victory for the homeless and for the ACLU,” Raymond Vasvari, ACLU of Ohio legal director, said in a news release. “We went to court to stop a policy whereby police used the threat of arrest to sweep innocent and peaceful homeless people off the streets and out of the public consciousness. In December we succeeded in putting a temporary halt to that policy. Today [Feb. 2], it stops for good.”

Gino Scarselli, associate legal director for the Ohio ACLU, said in a news release: “This case should serve as a warning to other cities that unconstitutional sweeps against the homeless will be challenged. The homeless may not have any special constitutional rights, but they certainly have no fewer rights than the rest of us.”

“We will be monitoring the situation to make sure the city agrees to the terms of the consent decree,” Scarselli told The Freedom Forum Online.

Anthony Garofoli, the attorney representing the city in this lawsuit, said that Cleveland officials never harassed the homeless for innocent behavior. “The city never arrested anyone for sleeping on the sidewalks,” he said. “All the arrests were related to other offenses, such as public intoxication and other misdemeanors. We recognize that homeless people have constitutional rights.”