Miami officials halt enforcement of labor-pool loitering ordinance

Friday, February 2, 2001

Miami city officials recently ordered police officers to stop arresting people who gather in early morning labor pools, even though a federal judge last year said the city has a right to regulate such gatherings.

The city's decision to stop enforcing the loitering ordinance came to light last month after officials announced that police would start cracking down on a variety of “minor crimes,” like riding a bicycle without a bell or sitting on a milk crate within city limits.

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union said they were distressed about the new “minor crimes” initiative and vowed to raise a legal challenge if necessary. But they were cheered by the news that city officials essentially rendered Miami-Dade County Code 21-49 null and void.

That ordinance made “loitering for the purpose of obtaining temporary employment” a crime.

Andrew Kayton, former legal director for the Greater Miami Chapter of the ACLU, called the ordinance “unique” because it “essentially made it illegal to ask for work.” The ordinance, too, targeted the poor, he said.

Roy Wood, an assistant county attorney for Miami-Dade County, disagreed, saying the ordinance surfaced in 1994 because the would-be workers gathered near stores and residential areas. Officials, he said, were responding to numerous reports of such crowds blocking access to businesses, starting fights and urinating in front lawns.

Wood said the ordinance forbade such gatherings and also made it illegal for anyone to pick up people for temporary labor. But he noted that the ordinance provided several other places in the county for the workers to gather.

The ACLU argued that the ordinance unfairly restricted the workers' right to assemble.

In 1998, the ACLU sued both the city and Miami-Dade County on behalf of workers who had gathered on street corners and sidewalks waiting for employment. Lawyers claimed the city alone had made some 163 arrests from the ordinance's passage through 1998.

The county settled the case in 1999 for about $300,000 and an agreement to not enforce the ordinance. The city, however, fought the case and won.

A federal court judge said the court couldn't rule in favor of the plaintiffs because the ordinance did not enumerate penalties against the workers. Only those people who picked them up were subject to jail time or a fine. The judge also said the ACLU failed to prove that police officers and city officials were even aware of the ordinance.

The city ultimately decided to stop enforcing the ordinance because the judge didn't seem supportive of the way it was worded.

Wood said some officials interpreted the judge's remarks to mean that a properly drafted ordinance would pass constitutional muster in the future. But he wouldn't speculate on whether the county might try to write a new ordinance.

“It's all up in the air,” Wood said. “But an effort to recraft the ordinance can't be ruled out.”