Last week, I wrote about the Polk County Sheriff’s announcement that if any person with an outstanding warrant sought shelter from the hurricane they would be arrested:

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.

It’s not clear how many people were arrested and jailed in Polk County during the hurricane, but a lawsuit has already been filed alleging that the sheriff violated citizens’ rights as they sought shelter from the storm.

What the Lawsuit Says

The plaintiff, Andres Borreno, says that sheriff’s deputies were waiting at the entrances to area shelters during the storm and that they would not let him into a shelter unless he submitted to a background check. A copy of the lawsuit is available online.

The lawsuit alleges that the sheriff set up an illegal pedestrian checkpoint at the entrance to emergency shelters during the most powerful hurricane in recent history. The purpose of the checkpoints was to “detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing” without any individualized suspicion of criminal activity and therefore they were unconstitutional.

During a crisis situation in which thousands of Florida residents seek shelter from the worst hurricane in modern times, Sheriff Grady Judd decided to misuse all emergency shelters in his jurisdiction as pedestrian checkpoints to detect ordinary criminal wrongdoing. He boasted on Twitter: “If you have a warrant, turn yourself in to the jail—it’s a secure shelter,” and, “If you go to a shelter for Irma and you have a warrant, we’ll gladly escort you to a safe and secure shelter called Polk County Jail.” His spokesperson added, “We hope it [people seeking emergency shelter] actually leads to more people turning themselves in.” Indeed, Judd— the individual who sets policy for Polk County—has made it quite clear that he and his subordinate officers/deputies are simply trying to “detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrong doing,” at the entrance doors of shelters being used to save human lives. See City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 37-48 (2000). All statements to the contrary made by Judd are belied by the facts, and the law.

The Sheriff’s Response

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office says in a message on Facebook that they have not read the lawsuit. Then, although they have not read the lawsuit, they say, “Whatever it is, it’s frivolous and without merit.”

The Sheriff’s Office goes on to explain that they were just trying to protect the lawful people seeking shelter from the sex offenders. The lawsuit, that the Sheriff’s Office had not read when they released this statement, also addresses this anticipated response.

In Florida, sex offenders must have the words “sexual predator” or a similar designation printed on their driver’s license. To determine if a person seeking shelter is a convicted sex offender, a sheriff’s deputy or any person would only need to glance at their license to confirm whether they are a sex offender. It does not require a criminal background check.

By setting up checkpoints at the entrances to emergency shelters, the sheriff effectively denied assistance to the following people:

  • Undocumented immigrants, which may have been their primary target.
  • Any person with an outstanding warrant, including for unpaid traffic violations.
  • Any person with unpaid child support obligations.
  • Any person who had previously missed a court date, even for minor offenses.

Bench Warrants in Myrtle Beach, SC

As far as I know, our local government provided assistance to all who sought shelter as Irma caused flooding and damage in the Myrtle Beach and Charleston coastal areas.

If you have missed a court date in the magistrate court, municipal court, or Generals Sessions Court in the Myrtle Beach, Conway, Columbia, or Charleston areas, call our SC criminal defense lawyers to find out how we can help. You can schedule a free consultation to discuss the facts of your case by calling (843) 488-5000 or filling out our online form.

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