Occupy Denver: Does police warning to remove sidewalk encumbrances hint at crackdown?

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Last night, Occupy Denver sleepers were greeted around midnight by police officers who asked them to clear the sidewalks. Although a few people did so, the group as a whole remained in the same space, and it's unclear whether the warning comes with future action. It should be noted, however, that the official announcement came at the very start of Veteran's Day, when few city officials can be reached for comment.

Although the group's Twitter account has ventured back and forth on the topic all morning, the realities of the edict remain a bit foggy. Around midnight, a handful of officers stopped by the site to communicate about Denver Revised Municipal Code 49-246, which orders the removal of any objects seen as an encumbrance on a Denver walkway.

"At midnight, the cops came with an ordinance saying that the sidewalk had to be cleared," says occupation medic and former Westword profile subject Patricia Hughes. "There was no enforcement, though, and when I left, everyone was still snoring on the street. When I went down there, everything was as I had left it at 6:30 earlier in the night."

The code's official language reads:

"The manager of public works or the manager's designee (hereinafter in this article, "manager") is authorized to remove or to order the removal of any article, vehicle or thing whatsoever encumbering any street, alley, sidewalk, parkway or other public way or place (any such thing hereinafter in this article to be called an "encumbrance"). The manager may prescribe appropriate methods, specifications, placement and materials for encumbrances in the public right-of-way."

The occupation made little immediate change to its current situation, one in which protesters have averted attention from the police by maintaining Civic Center Park's 11 p.m. curfew and sleeping on the sidewalk, not on the grass, after it goes into effect. Larger items, such as the Thunderdome, Fort Love and the group's welcome desk, stand on the sidewalk at all times as the group's most firmly established sites.

Recent attempts to reinterpret the park's no-structures rule outside of the tent spectrum have ended in confrontations with police over a cardboard structure and an igloo, and officers have warned the group that even sleeping on the sidewalks might interfere with city codes against obstructing a passageway. Such people "are currently in violation of the law, but we're willing to let that one go," DPD sergeant Jeff Hausner told the group two weeks ago.

The question now is whether that confirmation still holds.

"The police officers were just letting them know of the illegal encumbrances in a public walkway," says Sonny Jackson, a public information officer for the Denver Police Department. Jackson says some members of the occupation voluntarily complied with the ordinance by removing their belongings. "No action was taken, and no citations were issued. The city can order the encumbrance removed, and if the warning is ignored, it can be considered a criminal offense, which comes with a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $999 fine."

This possible fine comes in addition to the costs required to remove any encumbrance. Once removed, the code's language allows disposal "in any manner the manager deems appropriate, including treating the encumbrance as trash." (This issue, the disposal of property owned by occupiers, is already under investigation from the Colorado ACLU based on reports from the most recent large-scale interaction between protesters and police.)

Although there are no plans yet in place to deal with the issue, there has also been no specific timeline set to do so. The subject is likely to be raised at upcoming general assemblies. In the meantime, the legal consequences of a failure to remove items from the sidewalk are below:

"(a) If the manager orders the removal of an encumbrance which has previously been permitted or is legally in place in the right-of-way and said encumbrance is not removed within a reasonable time after notice to the owner or person in charge thereof under, such time to be specified in the notice, or if the owner or person in charge cannot be readily found for the purpose of serving such notice, the manager shall cause the encumbrance to be removed. (b) If the manager orders the removal of an encumbrance which has not previously been permitted, or is not legally in the right-of-way, said encumbrance shall be immediately removed by the owner or the manager may immediately remove said encumbrance. (c) Notwithstanding the above, the manager may, without notice to the owner, immediately remove any non-permitted, illegal encumbrance without notice to the owner."

More from our Occupy Denver archive: "Occupy Denver elects a new leader: Shelby, a Border Collie mix."

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