Dianna Chane says she cannot get the Osceola County Sheriff's Office to remove unwanted guests from her HomeSuiteHome hotel, even if they aren't paying, are using drugs or committing assault.
Once a supporter of Osceola County Sheriff's Office, Chane has sued Sheriff Bob Hansell, saying he is forcing independent hotels on U.S. Highway 192 to become homeless shelters.
"What has crushed me is I have been denied the right to manage my own property," Chane said. "I feel like we've been taken hostage."
The hotel is one of many in Osceola that became residences for the homeless during the recession. Guests have used their hotel receipts to get drivers licenses, and 438 children have used the hotel's address to register in school, Chane's attorney said.
Osceola has no homeless shelters to which guests can be sent.
Chane's lawsuit, originally filed in Osceola Circuit Court and later moved to U.S. District Court in Orlando, seeks to force the sheriff to remove unwanted guests, as well as unspecified damages and attorney's fees.
The Osceola County Sheriff's Office said it would not comment on active litigation.
But an attorney for the sheriff has filed to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing that the department must rely on not just what a hotelier says, but the intention of the guest as well. Permanent residents are subject to tenant laws that require an eviction through the court.
"Hotel owners simply cannot engage long-term guests, or have people stay at their facilities as though they were long-term rentals, then turn on a dime when they stop paying and pretend they are tourists," Thomas Poulton, an attorney for Hansell wrote. "... [T]he entire premise of Plaintiff's claim -- that the hotel owners decide who and who is not a transient guest -- is flat-out wrong."
Chane's HomeSuiteHome is an extended-stay property on Osceola County's tourism strip at Walt Disney World's doorstep. It is a place she describes as a "short-term emergency fix" while people make other arrangements.
Chane runs a similar extended-stay hotel in Orlando and says police there remove unwanted guests. Her attorney, Brian Blair of Baker & Hostetler, said Hansell's attorney is mistaken in his interpretation of the law.
Florida law "clearly sets forth that [as] a hotel operator of a transient establishment -- you can go in and say, 'I don't wish to entertain you anymore,"' Blair said. "The statute says you can call the sheriff, and he has a duty to remove them."
A separate group of independent hoteliers has sued along similar grounds. It is seeking a declaration on whether the Sheriff's Office is properly interpreting state law, but that case is still pending in state court.
According to Chane's lawsuit, other nearby hotels aren't running into the same problems. The operator of a nearby Econo Lodge has said she has no issues with the sheriff removing guests and that the process is "simple," the lawsuit states.
In the past, as other hoteliers who ran mom-and-pop properties along U.S. 192 complained that the Sheriff's Office was refusing to remove nonpaying guests, Chane said in public meetings that she had no such problems and that deputies were cooperative.
But during the past year, that changed, and Chane can't exactly say why. She's trying to sell HomeSuiteHome but says her attempts have fallen through.
"You can't attract investors in a community where they will not police," she said. "It's safer to go to Orange County."
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