A homeless man in Sarasota, Florida was arrested after charging his cell phone at a charging station in a public picnic shelter. 28-year-old Darren Kersey was arrested around 9:30pm on Sunday by Sarasota Police Sgt. Anthony Frangioni, who told him that he should charge his phone at local shelters.
“Theft of city utilities will not be tolerated during this bad economy,” Frangioni wrote in his arrest report.
Kersey ended up spending a night in jail for the misdemeanor as he did not have $500 in bail. But on Monday, Circuit Judge Charles Williams threw the case out, on the grounds that Frangioni did not have the legal justification to arrest Kersey.
As the Sarasota Herald-Tribune notes, the ACLU is taking note of Kersey’s arrest for charging his cell phone in a public place. It is not at all the first time that it has accused Sarasota of trampling on the civil rights of the homeless. Previously, the ACLU sued Sarasota over a trespass ordinance that led to more than 6,500 people being ordered to vacate downtown sidewalks; city officials are currently rewriting the measure.
Michael Barfield, who is in charge of the legal panel for the ACLU’s Sarasota chapter and has been monitoring the police’s efforts to remove the homeless from city parks, notes that “so much happens on a daily basis, it’s hard to keep up with it. Every day there’s something new.” Advocates for the homeless note that those with money receive different treatment. For instance, those who own electric cars can charge them for free at vehicle charging stations located throughout Sarasota, including at its City Hall.
The morning after Kersey’s arrest, two homeless people were charging their phones at the same picnic shelter in the same park, Gillespie Park. One of those interviewed by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Maura “Cookie” Wood — who cannot walk more than 20 feet and has slurred speech after suffering a stroke — needs to use the charging stations to charge her electric wheelchair. Noting she can’t get anywhere without charging her chair, Wood said that the police will just “have to arrest [her] for sleeping in public, in my chair.”
Other homeless people charging their phones noted that there is no sign posted saying that it is against the law for them to do so. Plus, they need their phones to stay in contact with family and others and to call 911.
As Barfield says, the city of Sarasota is showing every sign of making “war on the homeless.”
The head of the Sarasota police is due to retire soon and his replacement, current Ocean City, Md., Police Chief Bernadette DiPino, says she “hopes to implement a community-based strategy for dealing with the homeless, in which civilians who are familiar with local resources can intervene, rather than police.” DiPino hopes that social workers can assist Sarasota’s homeless to find shelter, food, medical care and other resources.
DiPino’s plans do sound like a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen if and how they might be carried out. In the meantime, Kersey’s arrest is a reminder of why Sarasota was named the “meanest city in the nation” by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless in 2006. The city has since lost that “honor” but its streets, sidewalks and parks are looking pretty mean again.
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Photo by Jeff Kubina