DENVER (AP) – Three advocates for Denver’s homeless population who tried to camp outside city hall last year were being tried in court Wednesday for violating a city law they consider immoral. They could face up to a year in jail if convicted.
Randy Russell, Jerry Burton and Terese Howard set up blankets and sleeping bags in their effort interrupted by police to camp, saying the camping prohibition that allows people to use only clothing for protection while they are outside makes it dangerous for homeless people trying to live on Denver’s streets. The three have called it the “survival ban.”
The three were ticketed by police Nov. 28 and face maximum penalties of up to a year in jail each or a $999 fine if convicted in a jury trial. They are also members of a group challenging enforcement of the law in federal court.
Similar bans have been adopted across the country but they have faced legal challenges resulting in about half of them getting overturned since 2014, according to the National Law Center of Homelessness & Poverty, based in Washington, D.C. It is rare for people to face trial for violating the bans, said Maria Foscarinis, the center’s executive director.
A video of their blankets being removed and folded by officers attracted heavy attention on social media. Mayor Michael Hancock then ordered police not to confiscate blankets and sleeping bags as they enforced the camping ban throughout the winter.
The three were not interested in making plea agreement deals with prosecutors.
During jury selection Tuesday, city attorney Rebekah Watada pressed jurors on whether they could impartially enforce the law passed in 2012 if prosecutors prove the defendants violated it, regardless of whether the jurors support it or not.
Several who said they could not or questioned whether anyone should be prosecuted for violating the law were excused. A 27-year-old man who works in marijuana sales said he would “bear a sense of guilt” if he convicted the three, but added that could do so and was seated on the jury.
Defense lawyer Jason Flores-Williams quoted from the Woody Guthrie song “This Land is Your Land” in his opening statement and urged jurors to consider a “higher law” in deciding their verdicts.
“The defendants are here because they believe this law is immoral and hurts people,” he told the judge before the jury was brought in to hear the case.
Another city attorney, Brad Whitfield, told jurors that police accompanied by a human services outreach worker gave Russell and Burton multiple warnings during the day not to try to camp and urged them to go to a shelter.
That night, they and Howard plus others set up camp outside city hall. The three were the only ones who refused to leave and were cited by officers.
City officials have said there is enough space in shelters to house Denver’s homeless population, but people who have pets or do not want to follow shelter rules cannot stay in them.
The city has tried to develop alternative options for the homeless and recently approved a temporary permit for tiny homes outfitted with wheels to be located on land scheduled for eventual development in one of the city’s most prized neighborhoods.
The homes would have to be moved to another area after six months.
– By COLLEEN SLEVIN, AP Writer
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