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Urban camping ban: Lawyers make plans for pro bono defense of offenders

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Denver's proposed urban camping ban has a lot of people talking -- about legality, repercussions and enforcement, the last of which Police Chief Robert White promises will be "very passive." But what about representation? This morning, Westword spoke to Charles Nadler, president of the Colorado chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, about the group's response to the proposal. The chances of pro bono legal aid are "very likely," he says.

The Colorado NLG provided free legal representation to those arrested in conjunction with the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and continues to do likewise for Occupy Denver arrestees. The urban camping ban, which city council preliminarily approved at an epic public hearing last Monday, could again inspire volunteer lawyers across the state to provide pro bono representation.

"I'm pretty certain we would do that," Nadler notes. "That's what we do. They certainly have been interested in the camping ordinance." In the meantime, he says, "The city needs to do something about getting enough beds out there for the people who are homeless, for sure."

Right now, with the city council's final vote on the ordinance scheduled for May 14, nothing is final -- and that includes the NLG's plans. But the group's steering committee will address the topic in upcoming meetings, Nadler says, and he expects the organization to come down in favor of taking on any future cases related to the ban, if passed. From there, early moves would include discussing strategy with David Harrison, a Boulder attorney who organizes free representation for Boulder's similar camping ban, "but it's too early to say what all the steps would be."

Harrison, too, has provided free legal aid for the Occupy movement, and "I'm certainly happy to talk to anybody that's interested in defending against camping bans," he says.

Since Harrison began providing free resources to camping-related arrests in 2010, he has worked on more than sixty cases, most of which have ended in favor of his clients through prosecution or dismissal. Harrison's firm, Miller & Harrison, works with law students at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the group currently represents four camping cases. This is a decline in numbers: Since a Boulder ordinance closed the city's parks from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. starting in January, the new law's jury trial restrictions have made camping cases tougher to defend.

"Now it's not sleeping in the parks that's illegal," Harrison says, "it's being in the parks. The truth is, for whatever reason, I just haven't been getting many cases, but back when we had a lot of cases, and therefore a lot of trials, I heard from more than one police officer that they were not going to write a ticket because it was just too much trouble to go to court and prosecute them."

Bringing numerous cases to court also takes a financial toll on the city, which in Boulder's case has included the temporary opening of additional court rooms to accommodate the extra jury trials. But lawyers and judges are paid whether they're in a court room or at their desks, Harrison points out, and mounting costs are not his point

"I think it's important so that the police, when they issue the tickets, don't think that's going to be their last roll," Harrison says about why he elected to defend camping cases. "I think they need to know that when they issue the ticket, they'll have to come in and explain why, what they saw, etc., and I also think it's important to show the homeless community that there's someone to stand up with them. I've noticed it helps their self-esteem, win or lose, because at least somebody listened to them."

In the meantime, Police Chief White has promised that Denver's ordinance, if passed, will come with no arrests or citations in its first year that are not directly approved by a Denver Police Department supervising officer. "Our first goal is to remain very passive," White told a city council committee. "The last thing our officers want to do is arrest someone for being homeless."

Check back for additional updates on Denver's ban.

More from our Photos: Denver City Council preliminarily passes urban camping ban">Politics archive: "Photos: Denver City Council preliminarily passes urban camping ban."

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