In the past three years, police in the Miami area have arrested at least 49 people for unlawful use of a dairy case for sitting on milk crates, having one attached to their bicycle or in their possession, according to booking data from the Miami-Dade Department of Corrections.
Because the crates are stamped with company logos, having one in your possession is a first-degree misdemeanor punishible by up to a year in jail.
Activists say “milk case crime” as well as “shopping cart” crimes are only used to hassle members of the homeless population, which costs tax payers, clogs jails and does little to solve the problem.
“Punishing people for sitting on a milk crate is just another way Miami is criminalizing homelessness, ” Jackie Azis, staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida, told the Miami New Times.
In the past, Miami area police developed a reputation for harassing homeless people dating back to the 1980s when they routinely arrested transients on misdemeanors for things like being in the park after dark and sitting on the sidewalk in an organized attempted to drive them out of the city.
Eventually advocates sued the city, forcing it to sign the Pottinger Agreement, a resolution that forced officers to offer homeless people help and shelter and forbid the department from arresting homeless people just for living in the streets.
Now, this year, the ACLU accused the Miami Police Department of “systematically” harassing its city’s homeless population.
According to the Pottinger Agreement, charging homeless folks with crimes for sitting on crates is technically allowed.
But Azis argues it goes against the spirit of the deal.
“These are the types of actions that really were at the heart of Pottinger,” she explained.
“It appears the city is still using laws to harass homeless individuals in an effort to remove them from sight. These types of actions don’t just hurt the individuals who were arrested but hurts our communities. It does nothing to address the root cause of homelessness or to help find a solution to homelessness in Miami.”
In January this year, Miami officers observed 65-year-old Modesto Paez-Diaz sitting on a milk crate near Little Havana and arrested him.
“I observed Roldos sitting on a dairy crate.The dairy crate was stamped with the trademark McArthur Dairy logo. Roldos was arrested and transported to jail,” officer F. Alvarez wrote in his incident report.
Paez-Diaz spent the night in jail before the judge dismissed the case the next morning.
Miami isn’t the only city using the law to hassle the homeless.
Timothy Troller of Auburn, Florida, was arrested for having a milk crate attached to his bicycle.
Troller said he found the crate on the side of the road, but the Polk County Sheriff’s Department didn’t care.
“You’re possessing something that is stolen from a business, whether it’s as small as a milk crate, or a shopping cart,” Polk County Sheriff’s Office Spokesperson, Carrie Horstman said.
“He was charged with possessing stolen property. He may pay a fine or spend a few days in jail.”
Whether knowingly or unknowingly, Horstman admitted to using the practice to harass people and to initiate searches against them.
“Deputies are actually out there proactively looking for things that don’t look right; looking for suspicious things. If they see somebody riding a bicycle at 10 o’clock at night they may have a conversation with them,” he admitted.
“They are looking for people who are doing even the smallest crime, because, what we’ve learned is, those who will go out an steal a milk crate, for example, are the same people who are probably breaking into cars, breaking into your house.”
In 2003, harassment of people sitting on milk crates was also part of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to clean up the city as part of Operation Impact.
When a young man in the Bronx was handed summons after police found him sitting on a milk crate, an administrated judge said she’d never heard of an “unauthorized use” of a milk crate law herself.
At the time, even the police union complained they were being pressured to write these kinds of citations as a way to bring revenue to the city.