Lawyer: Suspend Urban Camping Ban During Homeless Class-Action Trial

An encampment near the Platte River that was forcibly dismantled during a sweep in 2017.
An encampment near the Platte River that was forcibly dismantled during a sweep in 2017. Brandon Marshall
The lawyer representing Denver’s homeless population in a federal class-action lawsuit that claims the city violates certain constitutional rights when it sweeps homeless encampments is asking the court to suspend Denver's urban camping ban a week before and during the trial, which starts on March 19.

Jason Flores-Williams, the attorney arguing on behalf of the homeless, submitted a motion to District Court Judge William Martinez today, February 4, arguing that Denver’s camping ban could prevent witnesses from testifying in the case.

“There is a virtual fence around Downtown Denver,” Flores-Williams writes in the motion. “Plaintiffs are chased from the Downtown area to the outer reaches of the City so that they cannot get to the Courthouse to provide evidence and testimony. Plaintiffs’ property is seized so that that they are forced to choose between using their voice or losing their possessions.”

Flores-Williams says he's not seeking to have the court review or consider the constitutionality of Denver’s camping ban, which was eliminated from the scope of the lawsuit during pre-trial hearings in 2017 and 2018. But suspending, or at least tweaking, the ordinance isn't unheard of, he argues, citing a December 2016 executive order from Mayor Michael Hancock that prohibited police officers from confiscating blankets or tents when enforcing the camping ban after a pair of controversial videos went viral.

Flores-Williams contends that a suspension of the camping ban, from March 12 through the end of the trial on March 29, is a reasonable request and within the power of the court to enforce.

Responding on behalf of the city, Theresa Marchetta, the director of communications for the Mayor's Office, wrote Westword on Monday night saying, "There is no need to suspend enforcement of city laws or disrupt normal city operations. The city does not target individuals for arrest in order to prevent them from testifying. That is an unfounded claim.

The class-action lawsuit has involved some unusual motions as a result of the plaintiffs’ homeless status. For example, Martinez has allowed individuals who don't have IDs inside the federal courthouse, which requires identification for entrance, during the trial.

The case has slowly advanced toward a jury-trial showdown for years; Flores-Williams filed the suit after a number of high-profile homeless sweeps in late 2016, and in 2017, the federal court allowed every person experiencing homelessness in Denver to serve as plaintiffs in the case.

Both Flores-Williams and the city filed motions for summary judgment in 2017, believing their respective arguments were strong enough to avoid a full jury trial, but Martinez dismissed the requests.

At the conclusion of his filing this morning, Flores-Williams writes, “Thousands of hurting and exhausted homeless people have believed and struggled for three years to provide evidence and testimony to this Court. Now, all they are asking for is three weeks so that they can do so with dignity. Three weeks to provide evidence, three weeks to give their testimony, three weeks in which they aren’t treated as the unwanted, nor harassed, nor tired, nor poor, nor any of the things that this country used to welcome and now abuses, but citizens going to their Courthouse with the rights afforded everyone else.”

Update, February 5, 7 a.m.: We've included a response statement from the Mayor's Office.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker