MANATEE COUNTY, FL – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida and Larry Eger, public defender for the 12th Judicial Circuit, filed an emergency petition today on behalf of people incarcerated in Manatee County Jail, seeking their release from custody or transfer to a safe location due to the imminent collapse of a nearby phosphate wastewater reservoir. The crisis has led to a mandatory evacuation order in the surrounding area. The jail is in the mandatory evacuation zone, yet at least 700 individuals remain in custody at the jail.
On Friday, April 2, a large breach was discovered in the structure of the 77-acre wastewater reservoir in the Piney Point area. Officials determined a collapse of the reservoir was imminent. The reservoir is less than a mile away from the jail. If the reservoir collapses, officials have warned it could rush an immense amount of polluted and toxic water into the surrounding area within seconds or minutes. The flood could fill surrounding buildings with up to 20 feet of toxic wastewater, the officials warned. If the jail is flooded, persons detained there, as well as the employees, could become trapped on upper levels and be unable to access critical infrastructure on the first floor.
“There is an imminent danger to those in the jail, yet the sheriff is endangering both those in his care and his employees by continuing to detain individuals in the mandatory evacuation zone,” said Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida and lead attorney for the petition.
The petition filed against Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells represents individuals who are in custody pretrial as well as those who are being held post-conviction. One of the individuals represented in the case is in pretrial custody simply because she cannot afford to pay her bail-- $1,620.
“Many of the individuals in custody at the jail simply don’t need to be in there in the first place. They are only in custody because they cannot afford their pretrial freedom,” said Jacqueline Azis, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida. “Sitting in custody on an unaffordable bail pretrial--when you are presumed innocent--is always unjust. We should not wait until an emergency arises to recognize and fix our broken criminal justice system.”
The petition asks the court to find that keeping the individuals in custody during this emergency is unconstitutional under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. It asks the court to order the immediate release of all individuals in custody at the jail, or transfer all persons detained in the jail to another secure location outside of Manatee County’s mandatory evacuation zone.
The case was filed in Florida’s Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court in Manatee County.
The petition can be found here: https://www.aclufl.org/sites/default/files/final_piney_point_habeas_ecf.pdf