Unequeal Protection

By Roberta O. Roberts

Alumnus Peter Sleasman (JD 83) fights on behalf of Guatemalan immigrants targeted by local government

In a March 2006 nighttime raid, armed men burst into the homes of several frightened families. With little time to gather belongings and under threat of arrest if they tried to return, more than 100 men, women and children of Guatemalan-Mayan descent were herded into the streets — evicted from their homes with no place to go.

Though reminiscent of terrifying police and army actions during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, this raid was perpetrated by officers of the law and code enforcement officials employed by the city of Lake Worth, Fla. The victims were residents of an apartment complex targeted by the city for its large immigrant population.

“One of the most egregious aspects of this case is the night police raid in the apartment complex,” said Peter P. Sleasman (JD 83), a senior staff attorney with Florida Institutional Legal Services in Gainesville. “A lot of the residents lived in Guatemala during the civil war and (faced) issues with police and army raids at night, so this raid had a lot of overtones to this group of clients and they were greatly affected by it.”

Sleasman was a member of a team of four — also including lead attorney Lisa Carmona of the Florida Equal Justice Center and attorneys Tequisha Myles of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and Charles Elsesser of Florida Legal Services — who brought a civil suit against the city of Lake Worth on behalf of three women who were members of the evicted Guatemalan families.

As research for their litigation, the team hired an expert to create a statistical study that, according to Sleasman, “showed in fairly stark terms that the city’s code enforcement efforts specifically targeted areas of high immigrant population.”

Sleasman also said city police officers looked for code violations in a crime victim’s house when responding to a call in the neighborhood. The police officers would submit their findings to code enforcement, a practice they admitted they did not follow when responding to calls in the homes of white residents.

Sleasman said the raids were the city’s calculated strategy to force immigrants out of Lake Worth and discourage landlords from providing housing to them.

“Some of the city officials made clear comments that they were concerned about what they referred to as the ‘changing nature’ of their community. We felt there was a direct connection between those comments and the selective code enforcement that was going on in this case,” Sleasman said. “They were looking, I think, to send a message to landlords who were renting to immigrants that there was going to be increased code enforcement and increased scrutiny of their properties.”

He said the two main claims the team brought in their suit were due process violations regarding code enforcement and fair housing discrimination based on national origin. The heart of the due process violation was that the city didn’t allow the tenants opportunity to challenge the evictions.

According to The Florida Bar Foundation, the case resulted in a settlement that bans nighttime inspections unless there is ample evidence one is necessary and appropriate. The settlement also provides that evacuated residents be given a written notice of their right to challenge the evacuation order and that they be given an opportunity for a hearing. In the event of an emergency evacuation, the settlement requires that displaced residents be provided information about social services agencies that might be able to assist them.

For their efforts on this case, the litigation team was awarded in June the 2010 Steven M. Goldstein Award for Excellence. The award is given by The Florida Bar Foundation to program grantees of the Foundation Legal Assistance for the Poor in recognition of projects with significant impact. All the attorneys on the case are members of the LAP program and work for legal services firms supported by the foundation.

“It took some creative thinking and outstanding advocacy in both litigation and negotiation to get this result,” said the Hon. William Van Nortwick (JD 70), a judge in Florida’s First District Court of Appeals and chair of the Goldstein award selection committee. “I don’t know what was on the mind of the city, but the result of this project is that these folks are no longer going to be selectively removed. There won’t be people knocking on their door in the middle of the night and moving them out of their home,” he said.

Sleasman is especially proud of the outcome of the case, which is just one of many he’s tackled during his 26-year career in public interest law.

“To the extent that the government can run roughshod over the rights of the poor, it typically sets the stage for government running roughshod over the rights of everyone,” Sleasman said. “And so everyone’s rights have to be protected, regardless of their position in society or their economic status, in order to protect the rights of all of us,” he said.