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Florida Sheriff Sued Over Criminal Background Checks at Hurricane Shelter

(Image via Twitter screenshot)

Immigration advocates and a man denied entry to a Florida hurricane shelter filed a lawsuit Sunday against the Polk County Sheriff’s Office after law enforcement threatened to pull sex offenders and criminals from shelters.

Nexus Services, a bail bondsmen liaison for individuals accused of immigration crime, filed the lawsuit with Andres Borreno, a Virginia resident who refused to submit to a criminal background check when attempting to enter a Polk County shelter on Saturday, the day before Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd announced via Twitter on Sep. 6 that sheriff’s deputies would be screening hurricane shelters and escorting sex offenders and criminals to jail.

“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,” the sheriff’s office wrote in a series of tweets. “We cannot and we will not have innocent children in a shelter with sexual offenders & predators. Period.”

Nexus Services and Borreno claimed in their lawsuit, filed with Polk County’s Tenth Judicial Circuit Court on Sunday, that the policies are unconstitutional as they violated Fourth Amendment rights offering protections from unreasonable search and seizure. Police must suspect criminal wrongdoing in order to implement such invasive policies, the lawsuit argued, and criminal suspicion is not raised by trying to enter an emergency shelter to “save one’s life and the life of family members.”

“Sheriff Judd’s true motives are clear, and have been expressed by him explicitly: The purpose of these pedestrian ‘checkpoints’ is to conduct a fishing expedition to find any possible basis, no matter how tenuous, for issuing citations to or arresting human beings seeking refuge from a Class 5 hurricane,” the plaintiffs charged in the lawsuit. “The problem is that these searches and seizure are not based on any suspicion of criminal conduct.”

According to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, about 80 percent of Polk County was without power this morning as a result of Hurricane Irma. That included more than 43,000 Duke Energy customers and 1,500 Lakeland Electric customers without power.

The sheriff’s office also took to Facebook on Sep. 6 and detailed why the policies were necessary to ensure that hurricane shelters were safe. Law enforcement noted that deputies need to be aware of who is inside a shelter, and if registration turns up any active warrants there is a legal obligation to take people into custody.

“We don’t have a choice. We aren’t planning on that eventuality – but it is a possibility, and we wanted everyone to know ahead of time that it is,” the sheriff’s office wrote.

As Hurricane Irma has passed through Florida, there has been discussion about immigrants and undocumented individuals’ fears about detention or deportation while entering hurricane shelters. The plaintiffs noted that Florida law requires sexual offenders have those designations clearly marked on their driver’s licenses.

“To determine if a holder of a driver license or identification card is a convicted sexual predator or sexual offender, all deputies and officers need to do is check each person’s license or ID card for the marking,” the lawsuit read.

The plaintiffs claim that Borreno is entitled to “equitable relief” and damages for the unlawful searches conducted by Polk County deputies.

Sheriff’s office spokesman Scott Wilder told The Washington Post on Monday that the group filing the lawsuit is “lying to you.”

“We have not read whatever they say they have filed,” Wilder wrote in a Facebook message, according to The Post. “Whatever it is, it’s frivolous and without merit.”