Apr 7, 2022 - News

Sarasota to criminalize sitting or sleeping on sidewalks

Illustration of a no entry sign on a cement sidewalk.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

In Sarasota, once dubbed by homeless advocates the meanest city in America, it could soon be illegal to sit or lie on some downtown sidewalks.

Driving the news: After downtown business owners complained about aggressive begging, Sarasota city commissioners voted unanimously Monday night to pass an ordinance that would criminalize sitting or lying down in certain areas.

  • The ordinance applies to Main Street from west of Washington Boulevard to U.S. 41, and along Palm Avenue, between Ringling Boulevard and Cocoanut Avenue, between 10am and midnight.
  • Commissioners must approve it once more after a public hearing for it to take effect, per the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Yes, but: The ordinance exempts sitting for permitted events like parades, sitting and lying down for medical emergencies, sitting to eat at sidewalk cafés, waiting for a bus and sitting in a wheelchair or motorized vehicle.

  • Also exempt: babies in baby strollers, thank goodness.

Of note: One exemption and possible loophole is for "expressive activity," interpreted as: "A person sitting or lying down while engaged in expressive activity protected by the First Amendment when accompanied by incidents of speech such as signs or literature explaining expressive activity."

  • "The vagrants may well learn you just put up a little sign saying 'Vagrancy is free speech' and they find the loophole," one citizen told the commission.

What they're saying: "It's not asking for spare change or a dollar," Mark Zemil, the president of Zemil Jewelers on Main Street said, per the Herald-Tribune. "These people are getting very aggressive, and the time to take care of this is right now."

The other side: The ordinance is "clearly another effort to attack the homeless," Michael Barfield, the now-former president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, told the Herald-Tribune in October.

Flashback: The Supreme Court in 2019 passed on a closely watched case that would have offered clarity.

  • It challenged a Boise, Idaho law that prohibited "camping" on public property and "lodging or sleeping" in any place, whether public or private, without the owner's permission.

The big picture: Clearwater, Orlando and St. Petersburg have similar ordinances, according to Sarasota city attorney Robert Fournier, who warned commissioners that the ordinances are frequently challenged.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that Michael Banfield is the former president of the ACLU of Florida (not the current president).


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