MORRISTOWN, N.J. — When officials in Summit invoked the USA Patriot Act to justify kicking homeless people out of its train station in June, the move was ridiculed in many quarters. Even the U.S. Justice Department said the city had no business applying the anti-terrorism law to justify its treatment of the homeless.
But now that the federal government has issued a warning in the aftermath of the London bombings that terrorists may pose as homeless people to study buildings and mass-transit stations while plotting future attacks, no one is laughing anymore.
In an answer to a federal lawsuit brought by a homeless man who objected to being told to leave the Summit train station, the city said in June that its conduct was protected by the Patriot Act and the lawsuit should be barred. The city cited a section of the law regarding "attacks and other violence against mass transportation systems."
That prompted a Justice Department spokesman to call the move "a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Patriot Act is," and "an overreaching application of the law."
But last week, the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington sent an e-mail alert to some federal employees citing the London terror bombings and warning of terrorists posing as homeless people in transit stations.
Fifty-two people died in the July 7 attacks on the London subway.
"It absolutely does buttress our position," said Timothy Beck, a lawyer representing the city of Summit. "It reinforces the absolutely legitimate concerns that every municipality has had since Sept. 11. These are real, true concerns."
Summit is among several defendants being sued in U.S. District Court in Newark by Richard Kreimer, 55, who is seeking at least $5 million in damages against NJ Transit, the city of Summit, nine police officers and several other defendants, claiming he and other homeless people have been unlawfully thrown out of train stations since August.
He also wants a federal judge to decide whether transit stations are public or private property, and whether people who are not ticketed passengers have the right to be in them.
Ed Barocas, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said Summit should not take too much solace in the federal alert.
"They are misreading the alert and are merely seeking after-the-fact justification for discriminatory actions," he said. "The alert asks for increased vigilance. It does not in any way authorize the police to take illegal actions.
"Removing [people] simply because of the way they look, especially when they have a ticket as Mr. Kreimer did, or searching them based on their economic status, is unconstitutional," Barocas said. "Nothing about this alert changes that or seeks to change that."
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment on Aug. 30.
Sitting on an outdoor bench in Morristown, rifling through legal papers, Kreimer said Aug. 30 that the Patriot Act defense was ludicrous in his case.
"Before they even approached me, they know I'm homeless Kreimer from Morristown, not homeless al-Qaida," said Kreimer, who is serving as his own lawyer.
Kreimer garnered national attention — and nearly a quarter of a million dollars — in 1991 after suing Morristown, the Morris Township public library and the police department over his treatment there. The library threw him out at least five times, claiming his body odor and the way he looked at library patrons offended them.
Morristown paid $150,000 to settle a harassment suit, and the library's insurer kicked in $80,000 to get Kreimer to drop his suit after a federal judge ruled the library's rules on hygiene were unconstitutional. That ruling was later overturned, but not before Kreimer had been paid.
It was not clear why, in light of his court payouts, Kreimer is homeless. He lived in Lakewood, Colo., from 1993 until 2000, when he returned to New Jersey, and resumed filing lawsuits against individuals and institutions he felt had discriminated against him.
Kreimer conceded that authorities' concern about terrorists possibly posing as homeless people was legitimate.
"Yes, it is possible that someone could or will do that, yes," he said. "But someone could also be disguised in a three-piece suit, or as a priest. Can they allow police to go up and question people as to whether they're actually homeless? Where the court will come down on that, I don't know."