Florida's Joe Arpaio Threatens to Imprison Irma Refugees If They Have Warrants

Polk County's hurricane shelters will not be open to all.


Grady Judd
Chris Urso/ZUMA Press/Newscom

As Texas recovers from Hurricane Harvey, Florida is battening down for Hurricane Irma. The storm made landfall in the Caribbean today with 185-miles-per-hour winds.

Polk County is smack in the middle of Florida, and the sheriff's department there is sending an unusual message to anyone seeking safety: If there's a warrant for your arrest, don't bother. Go off somewhere and drown.

It's hard to interpret this tweet otherwise:

Sam Stein at The Daily Beast quickly contacted the law enforcement agency, and a spokesperson seemed to be playing dumb about the whole thing. She said they'd be checking for sex offenders, but the tweet suggested a much broader enforcement, and eventually she confirmed that was the plan:

"While we are checking, if we see someone with an active warrant we have to place them under arrest," she added. She didn't seem persuaded by the criticism that this would discourage people from showing up in the first place. "That is a risk a person would run," Horstman said. "I think it is much safer to be in our jail than to expose yourself to a Category 5 storm. You are using the phrase, 'people who are scared to go to jail.' If you have a warrant, legally you should be in jail. You should turn yourself in and be safe in our jail rather than risk your life waiting out a storm."

In other words, yes, they're telling people with warrants that they cannot seek shelter from the hurricane safely.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd is a nasty blowhard of the Joe Arpaio variety (listen to him talk about Arapio's pardon here), and we probably should not be surprised to see his department respond to a crisis by threatening people with jail. Here are some other "highlights" of Judd's career:

  • He brought felony charges against two teen girls, aged 12 and 14 at the time, blaming them for the suicide of another teen girl as a result of cyberbullying. Prosecutors eventually dropped charges due to lack of evidence, but Judd got plenty of publicityand refused to acknowledge doing anything wrong.
  • Following a big sex work sting, he publicly posted and mocked the appearances of the people they arrested for engaging in purely consensual (but criminalized) sexual activity.
  • He publicly threatened to arrest Apple CEO Tim Cook if Apple refused to unlock iPhones connected to a murder case.

And there's the smaller stuff, too. The sheriff's department drew my attention last October because it arrested and imprisoned a guy for having a milk crate attached to his bicycle. (Milk crates actually owned and used by dairies are often protected by special theft laws, and it can be technically illegal to have them. I explained more here.)

If Judd and his department get more media attention for their attitudes toward people seeking refuge, he'll probably see that as a victory.

UPDATE: Florida's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union responds: