Some protesters think Tampa police are handing out too many trespass warnings
Occupy Tampa activists and some advocacy groups are wondering why the City of Tampa is giving trespass warnings to so many protesters. This month two groups of people were trespassed from areas where they thought it was safe to assemble.
Cari Welsh thought she was going to be arrested based on the actions of police officers during an Occupy Tampa meeting last week. Instead, about 30 people were given trespass warnings from a parking lot 601 North Ashley Drive.
“We had our general assembly across the street because a few of our members have been trespassed from all parks in Tampa and one of them was trespassed from Ashley Drive. So, we went across the street – not on Ashley Drive – into an area where I’ve seen people sleeping and walking at all hours and we were just having our normal general assembly and all of a sudden about three or four police cars pulled up. The officers got out and they surrounded us and told us we couldn’t leave and everybody needed to get out their IDs.”
According to a Florida statute, a person can be charged with trespassing if they have already received a warning or if adequate signing indicates a private area. The Occupy Tampa group didn’t realize the area they were using was private property and Welsh said officers didn’t tell them either.
“No warning at all. The officer said that the security guard called them and that’s why they were there. I said, ‘well, they didn’t warn us’. The officer that I talked to said, ‘well they should have warned you guys, but he called us.”
“We cannot trespass someone from private property unless we are asked to do so by the property owner or manager.”
That incident happened after a smaller group of protesters was temporarily banned from the Tampa building where Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office is located. That group was attempting to deliver a gift basket they said represented mercury pollution. Spokesperson for the Florida American Civil Liberties Union, Derek Newton, said private building owners have lease agreements that stipulate how to enforce trespassing.
“As long as those agreements are enforced uniformly – in other words that rules aren’t applied differently to different people based on who they are or what they have to say – then there usually isn’t much of a problem.”
But some protesters think police officers are taking action based on familiar faces. The police report noted the presence of Occupy Tampa members and even referred to their presence at a previous protest. Tampa police department’s Andrea Davis said the officers were required to issue the trespass warnings to seven people outside the Attorney General’s office.
“We are obligated to do it when a building manager or owner asks for someone to be trespassed, we’re doing it on behalf of that property.”
Those seven people who were trespassed want to know how they’re supposed to go to a public office if they aren’t allowed in the private building. One of them, Chris Radulich, said there’s no way to get to offices in the building without entering areas that are now off limits to him.
“The building is – the entrance to the building is not on the street as such – you have to go in that walkway and that’s where we were when we got trespassed.”
A Florida statute says people can be arrested if they trespass after a warning. The Tampa Police Department’s standard operating procedures follow that statute. But TPD’s Davis said the individuals would not get arrested if they were going to an office they were allowed to visit, even though they had previously been issued trespass warnings for the building.
“If they are going to a specific office, no one’s going to trespass them. So if they have – let’s say there’s a law office in the building they’ve been trespassed – if they’re on their way to that law office and they go into that office, nothing’s going to happen.”
Radulich said the sudden rash of trespass warnings to protesters may be a sign of things to come.
“Apparently this is the tactic they are going to use to try to keep protesting down to a minimum. I guess they’re practicing for the Republican convention. That’s how I look at it because it makes no sense. I’ve been through many, many demonstrations in the last two years and this is the first time – you know, all of a sudden this is how they’re handling it.”
The ACLU’s Derek Newton said even though officers had the right to issue a trespass warning to the individuals, the situation may have been better resolved in a different way.
“Citizens have some sort of right to expect to access the office of a public official. On the other hand, a private business owner does have a right to say who can and cannot be on their property and under what circumstances. So it is a difficult situation and trespass warnings in those circumstances may not always be the best tool in trying to enforce that.”
The group was protesting a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Pam Bondi that would block an EPA regulation that reduces mercury pollution. Representatives from Bondi’s office did not respond to an interview request.
Here is livestream video of the Occupy Tampa general assembly meeting in the parking lot:
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