I started seeing reports about this on social media last night, including a number of complaints from people concerned with civil liberty issues. The story was out of Miami, where final evacuations and preparations were being put in place for Hurricane Irma. As part of that preparation, some homeless people near the waterfront were being arrested and detained.

Particularly for those with more libertarian leanings, a headline such as that sends up immediate red flags, but in this case it looks more like a case of breaking a few constitutional eggs in the interest of a life or death omelet. (Associated Press)

On what is likely the last clear day in Florida before Hurricane Irma’s monster wind and rain, social workers and police officers are giving Miami’s estimated 1,100 homeless people a stark choice: Come willingly to a storm shelter, or be held against their will for a mental health evaluation.

With the outer edge of the storm approaching Friday, these officials — backed by a psychiatrist and observed by an Associated Press team — rolled through chillingly empty downtown streets as dawn broke over Biscayne Bay, searching for reluctant stragglers sleeping in waterfront parks.

“We’re going out and every single homeless person who is unwilling to come off the street, we are likely going to involuntarily Baker Act them,” said Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust.

Invoking the “Baker Act” — a law that enables authorities to institutionalize patients who present a danger to themselves or others — is not something law enforcement does lightly, but officers detained at least six people by Friday afternoon. Under the law, they can be held up to 72 hours before the state would have to go to court to prolong their detention.

The Baker Act provides for the involuntary commitment of individuals suspected of being potentially mentally ill and posing a danger to themselves or others. Laws such as this worry libertarians for good reason because they can be employed by bad actors to abuse the civil rights of citizens. And this may turn out to be a situation where a sufficiently clever lawyer could make a case against the city if any of the homeless being detained can clearly demonstrate that they are of sound mind, were not carrying weapons and have no history of violent behavior.

But at the same time, what did we expect the city to do? As of this morning, Irma was surprising everyone by heading for the west coast of Florida rather than the east (where Miami is located) but the city will still see sustained hurricane force winds and, even worse, a heavier storm surge driving the Atlantic Ocean up into the waterfront district. People left out in the open down in the region where these detentions are taking place are probably going to die. And wouldn’t such a refusal to evacuate qualify as posing a danger to yourself?

I don’t know what sort of legal ground the city will be standing on if any of these homeless individuals decide to take them to court afterward, but the point here is that at least they’ll be alive to take legal action. I spend plenty of time railing against the infringement of civil liberties, but I’ve got to side with the city on this one. Perhaps in the abstract it’s easy enough to say that adults should take responsibility for their own decisions, but letting potentially mentally ill individuals in the park simply wash out to sea is not and should not be an option for Miami’s officials. After 72 hours they will have to release most of them, but by then the worst of the storm will have passed.