The checkpoint that since March 27 has limited access to the Florida Keys is facing a legal challenge of its constitutionality and the authority of county officials to establish and maintain the checkpoint.

Homestead attorneys Angelo Martin and Alan Fowler filed a lawsuit late Thursday, May 14 on behalf of Key West residents and business owners Jessica and Jonathan Haim and Jonathan’s mother, Bettina Haim, who lives in Seminole County, Florida.

“In light of the recent actions of defendant Monroe County taken under the guise of emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which included closing … the Florida Keys, to other American citizens,” the lawsuit states, “Plaintiffs’ rights have been deprived without due process and hereby challenge the authority of such action by the County as being without statutory or constitutional authority to enact a law to establish a checkpoint that prevents selected citizens from entering the Florida Keys.”

Jessica Haim and attorney Martin spoke with The Weekly on Friday, May 15, when Haim acknowledged the public backlash she’s received from a vocal group of concerned residents.

“I was raised in Key West since I was 3,” she said. “I think a lot of the pushback is because people are scared. They think we’re being greedy and are not considering the health and protection of Monroe County residents, but that’s not true. We’re not horrible people. So many people are so quick to judge, but there are thousands of people down here who are losing absolutely everything, and they don’t have the means or the voice to fight this.”

Haim and her husband own five retail shops in Key West, and while she hesitated to name them for fear of retail retaliation, she said, “They are 80% high-end, brand name items and 20% tourist-related items.”

Haim, who created the Facebook group Restoring Paradise Safely for people to voice opinions without fear of harassment, added that she is nearly nine months into a high-risk pregnancy.

“I know I’m vulnerable and I’m able to take serious actions to protect myself,” she said. “But I also know people who can’t provide basic necessities for their families. Their savings is gone; their credit cards are completely maxed and they’re waiting in food distribution lines for hours.

“There has to be some middle ground,” she said. “My biggest issue is that people cannot continue with this indefinite timeline.”

Martin expresses the same sentiment in the 53-page lawsuit that names as defendants Monroe County, the Board of County Commissioners, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Rick Ramsay, County Mayor Heather Carruthers and Emergency Management Director Shannon Weiner.

“The elected and appointed officials simply do not have carte blanche authority to infringe the constitutional rights of others, because those officials have declared an emergency,” the lawsuit states. “The enactment and enforcement of the Emergency Directives by the Defendants have caused Plaintiffs to suffer incalculable emotional and financial losses.” 

The Haims are not seeking any financial damages in the lawsuit, Jessica Haim emphasized. 

“We are only focused on our ability to earn our own living down here, and allow others to do the same in a smart and safe manner,” she said.

When asked what, if anything, gives county officials the authority to limit access to the Keys following a hurricane or evacuation, Martin said “that’s comparing apples to oranges, and I don’t want to speculate about hypotheticals.”

The lawsuit asks Circuit Judge Timothy Koenig for an emergency injunction that would end the checkpoint, but, Martin said, the judge has the option to either rule on the case as filed, or can ask to hear oral arguments from both sides.

The county’s usual policy is not to comment on pending litigation, and County Administrator Roman Gastesi declined to comment. Carruthers and Weiner did not respond to requests for comment late Friday. County Commissioners Michelle Coldiron and Craig Cates declined to comment on pending litigation.

Mandy Miles
Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.