ACLU Sues Judge Over Cincinnati Tent Cities Ban

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing Hamilton County Judge Robert Ruehlman over a ban on camps throughout the county

click to enlarge This summer's tent city in Over-the-Rhine - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
This summer's tent city in Over-the-Rhine

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio has filed a lawsuit against the Hamilton County judge who issued a county-wide ban on tent cities this summer, arguing that the ban is an overreach.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman issued the ban in August after city officials played cat-and-mouse with residents of a series of tent cities in downtown Cincinnati. That ban, instituted over a successively larger area over the course of roughly 10 days, effectively made it illegal to sleep outside or in a tent anywhere in the county.

The lawsuit was unusual in that Cincinnati officials basically asked the county to sue the city so it could direct law enforcement to begin clearing the camps.

The ACLU filed what's known as a Mandamus action yesterday morning in the federal First District Court of Appeals. That filing seeks to allow a party that wasn't part of the original legal action — in this case, New Prospect Baptist Church — to challenge the decisions of a lower court.

New Prospect offered to house people experiencing homelessness on church land in Roselawn. However, under Ruehlman's order, the ACLU argues that action would have been illegal. Thus, the ban is "overbroad" and "illegal," according to ACLU attorneys.

"The injunction stands as a roadblock between New Prospect and its mission to provide aid for people experiencing homelessness," ACLU volunteer attorney Joe Mead wrote in a statement. "According to the ban, New Prospect’s religious mission, conducted charitably on private property, is now considered a criminal act."

The fight between the city, county and residents of the tent cities and their advocates began early this summer, when the Cincinnati City Manager ordered a camp on Third Street under a Fort Washington Way overpass cleared. The camp then moved onto another part of Third Street, where it was again eventually moved. From there, the camp moved to Pendleton, and then onto private property owned by housing nonprofit Over-the-Rhine Community Housing. As the camp was moving from place to place, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley asked Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters to intervene. Deters sought the injunction banning the camps from Third Street from Ruehlman. As the camps moved, Ruehlman expanded his ban until it eventually included the entire county.

Camp inhabitants voluntarily moved from the final location in OTR under threat of arrest by Cincinnati Police. Some found housing, while others continued to experience homelessness.