City settles homeless protest suits
Homeless rally arrests prompted allegations of stifled free speech
The city will pay $65,250 to settle two federal lawsuits stemming from protests at Honolulu Hale prompted by the evictions of dozens of homeless people from Ala Moana Beach Park in March.
The Honolulu City Council approved a settlement agreement late Wednesday.
Lois Perrin, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, which filed the lawsuits, said the settlement breaks down as follows:
» $13,500 will go to each of two homeless advocates who were arrested the night of the protests. The ACLU's lawsuit argued that the arrest and prosecution of Siuea Utuloa "Utu" Langi and Julia Matsui Estrella violated their constitutional right to assemble and protest on public property.
» $250 will go to each of three plaintiffs represented by the ACLU in a separate lawsuit that alleged the city violated homeless advocates' right to free speech by imposing restrictions on them that were not placed on other members of the public.
» $37,500 will go to the ACLU for attorney fees and other litigation-related costs.
"I am honored to be part of these cases because our actions gave a needed voice to the homeless population," Langi said in a statement released jointly by the ACLU and the City & County of Honolulu.
Perrin said about 65 percent of the amount awarded to Estrella, of the group Island Tenants on the Rise, and Langi, of the H-5 Project homeless advocacy group, will go to non-profit organizations that assist the homeless.
Under the agreement, the city also must train law enforcement officers on the proper use of trespass laws on public property and consult with the ACLU on future issues stemming from access to the public grounds at Honolulu Hale.
"We welcome any and all peaceful demonstrations on the grounds of City Hall," city spokesman Jeff Coelho said in a statement. "Our move to clean our parks has provided the needed catalyst for much more meaningful action on the part of the state to address the homeless issue on our island."
Estrella and Langi were among about 100 people who marched to City Hall on March 27 to demonstrate after police began enforcing a nighttime closure of the park for around-the-clock maintenance and cleanup.
Protesters had gathered for about two hours before authorities began clearing the area around midnight. Authorities had said the protesters could not sleep or set up tents on the grounds of Honolulu Hale.
Most protesters cleared out or moved off the grounds. Estrella, Langi and two others left at first but soon returned to continue their protest.
All were then arrested and charged with criminal trespassing. Estrella and Langi fought the charges; the others pleaded no contest and were sentenced to time already served.
The second lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Rev. Bob Nakata, the Rev. Sam Cox and the Interfaith Alliance, a coalition of religious organizations that coordinates social action and human needs projects.