Jury finds defendants guilty of violating Denver’s camping ban

A jury Wednesday found three defendants guilty of violating Denver’s camping ban after they were ticketed in late November for sleeping outside with tents and blankets.

The three defendants, Jerry Burton, Randy Russell and Homeless Out Loud activist Terese Howard, hoped that the case would lead to an end to the policy, which they say is actually a ban on survival. But this week’s trial focused only on whether they had broken the existing law, not whether that law should stand. The case was the first legal challenge of the law.

Police rarely issue tickets for violators of the five-year camping ban, preferring instead to issue warnings and urge people to “move along” to shelters or other areas. In 2016, Denver Police issued only nine camping tickets, Denverite reports.

But on Nov. 28, defendants Burton and Russell stood their ground and received  tickets. Later that night, while camping outside the City and County Building, both men received additional tickets and police confiscated their camping gear as evidence. Howard, who has a home in Denver but sometimes sleeps outside, was also cited. The incident followed several weeks of sweeps of nearby homeless camps.

In December, after video surfaced of police enforcing the ban on a cold night, Mayor Michael Hancock publicly announced that police should not confiscate sleeping bags or blankets. The Denver Police Department says officers provide rides to shelters, share information about available resources and give multiple warnings before issuing tickets.

Senior Denver city attorney Brad Whitfield told the jurors during his closing argument, “This case is not about the answer to homelessness.” Attorney Jason Flores-Williams, who represented the defendants, acknowledged that the jury was simply following the law.

But Flores-Williams has said that he believes that this issue goes deeper, and that the camping ban violates the constitutional right to due process and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is not involved in this case, has called the ban “cruel,” saying that it ultimately allows people to sleep outside only if they are willing to forego blankets.


Photo credit: waferboard, Creative Commons, Flickr