Three individuals who were cited for illegal camping in Denver pleaded not guilty at their arraignment hearing on Wednesday, December 28.
Two of the defendants – Jerry Burton and Randy Russell – are experiencing homelessness, and are the individuals featured in a pair of viral videos that show Denver Police officers confiscating their blankets and tents as evidence of violating the city's Unauthorized Camping Ordinance.
The third defendant, Terese Howard, is not homeless but is active with the organization Denver Homeless Out Loud. All three said that they hope their court challenge will pressure the city to repeal the urban-camping ban, which has faced increased scrutiny from the public this winter – despite the city maintaining that it has enough shelter space for anyone who needs it.
“This is a prime example of the criminalization of the poor,” says their lawyer, Jason Flores-Williams, whom Westword recently profiled in the cover story “Ready for Action.”
Flores-Williams also has a separate suit against Denver, challenging the city's homeless sweeps, filed in federal court. Concerning the three camping-ban citations, he says that his clients have decided to undergo a jury trial — risking the penalty of a fine or up to six months in jail if they lose — because the city has demonstrated constitutional and due-process violations in its enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance.
“I don't think the city is even aware of the constitutional implications here in calling people's property 'evidence,'” says Flores-Williams. “There's the defense of necessity – saying that these people are homeless. There's an Eighth Amendment concern – that this was cruel and unusual punishment. And there's going to be a due-process challenge...to the characterization of people's property as 'evidence.'”
At Wednesday's hearing, the presiding judge observed that the cases against the three defendants do have probable cause. “The statements of the [police] officers support the charges, but it doesn't mean the charges are true and provable beyond a reasonable doubt," the judge said.
Yet Howard, Burton and Russell all hope that a jury will exonerate them and rule against the city's confiscation of tents and blankets.
Burton and Russell had their survival gear taken from them at two separate locations on November 28: once near the intersection of 27th Avenue and Arapahoe Street, and once in front of the City and County Building.
After a video of the encounter at the City and County Building went viral, both Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and the Denver Police Department released statements characterizing that particular encounter as a “protest.”
But the statements did not reference the earlier confiscations that occurred in the Five Points neighborhood (see below).
“They're taking people's belongings in 101 different ways,” claims Howard. She says that common justifications include: "orders of removal, public encumbrance, and abandoned property."
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In his letter on December 10, Hancock said that every step the city takes around homelessness is "intended to connect people with safe and warm places and critical supportive services." He also instructed police officers not to take any more survival gear while enforcing the camping ban through April 2017.
Russell and Burton have yet to retrieve their property from the city.
The next hearing in the trial is set for January 12.