DENVER (AP) — Three advocates for the homeless were convicted Wednesday of violating Denver's camping ban, one of many that have been enacted in rapidly gentrifying cities across the country.
Jurors deliberated for about three hours before convicting Randy Russell, Jerry Burton and Terese Howard, who were sentenced to probation and community service.
The three, who were interrupted by police when they set up blankets and sleeping bags outside city hall, say the camping prohibition that allows people to use only clothing for protection while they are outside makes it dangerous for homeless people. The three have called it the "survival ban."
Burton said Wednesday that fighting his ticket was worth it because his conviction shows that the city has criminalized being homeless, a longtime criticism of advocates.
"I proved the point today that they do," said Burton, who was homeless when he was cited but now has an apartment.
The jurors asked the judge during deliberations if they could pay the defendants' fines if they were convicted, but she said they should not consider what their punishment should be. Outside court, chalk messages on the walkway urged jurors to acquit the defendants, including one asking them to "judge the law" as well as the facts.
Russell, the only defendant who is currently homeless, said he planned to be on the street again that night.
"Hopefully I won't get another ticket," he said.
The three were ticketed by police Nov. 28 and faced maximum penalties of up to a year in jail each or a $999 fine if convicted. They are also members of a group challenging enforcement of the law in federal court.
Similar bans have been adopted across the country but they have faced legal challenges resulting in about half of them getting overturned since 2014, according to the National Law Center of Homelessness & Poverty, based in Washington, D.C. It is rare for people to face trial for violating the bans, said Maria Foscarinis, the center's executive director.
A video of their blankets being removed and folded by officers attracted heavy attention on social media. Mayor Michael Hancock then ordered police not to confiscate blankets and sleeping bags as they enforced the camping ban throughout the winter.
The three were not interested in making plea agreement deals with prosecutors.
During jury selection Tuesday, city attorney Rebekah Watada pressed jurors on whether they could impartially enforce the law passed in 2012 if prosecutors prove the defendants violated it, regardless of whether the jurors support it or not.
Several who said they could not or questioned whether anyone should be prosecuted for violating the law were excused. A 27-year-old man who works in marijuana sales said he would "bear a sense of guilt" if he convicted the three, but added that could do so and was seated on the jury.
Defense lawyer Jason Flores-Williams quoted from the Woody Guthrie song "This Land is Your Land" in his opening statement and urged jurors to consider a "higher law" in deciding their verdicts.
"The defendants are here because they believe this law is immoral and hurts people," he told the judge before the jury was brought in to hear the case.
Another city attorney, Brad Whitfield, told jurors that police accompanied by a human services outreach worker gave Russell and Burton multiple warnings during the day not to try to camp and urged them to go to a shelter.
That night, they and Howard plus others set up camp outside city hall. The three were the only ones who refused to leave and were cited by officers.
City officials have said there is enough space in shelters to house Denver's homeless population, but people who have pets or do not want to follow shelter rules cannot stay in them.
The city has tried to develop alternative options for the homeless and recently approved a temporary permit for tiny homes outfitted with wheels to be located on land scheduled for eventual development in one of the city's most prized neighborhoods.
The homes would have to be moved to another area after six months.