Police Defy City Council and Judge in Austin

by Richard R. Troxell

        On September 28, 2000 the Austin City Council struck the words “sleeping” or “making preparations to sleep including the laying down of bedding” from the city’s “No Camping” Ordinance.

        This action came on the heels of Magistrate Jim Coronado’s ruling that one cannot criminalize sleeping. The ruling came after over four years of direct street and court action led by House the Homeless, Inc. and its members all of whom are homeless and formerly homeless people.

        Recently, I have been receiving reports that police officers are issuing tickets to individuals who were not “camping’ but merely sleeping. In response, House the Homeless, Inc. issued a public notice seeking people who may have been injured by receiving one of these tickets.

        When we received nine such tickets, we brought this to the attention of Robert Dogget an attorney at Texas Rural Legal Aid. As Director of Legal Aid for the Homeless, TX Rural Legal Aid’s outreach project, I then wrote to the Chief of Police, the Chief of the Park Police, the City Manger, the Mayor and all Austin City Council Members and included a copy of the nine sample

tickets.

        Assistant Police Chief Fealy wrote back on behalf of Police Chief Knee saying that only one of those tickets was issued incorrectly by the City of Austin Police Department. Assistant Police Chief Fealy stated however that they would put the word out to that officer about proper procedures. He went on to write that if there were any kind of real problem, (which they

doubted), they would retrain police officers. Assistant Chief Fealy attributed all eight of the other tickets to the City Parks Department.

        (Clearly, from our perspective we don’t care who is issuing the tickets...it’s all the City of Austin).

        Acting in my role as Director of Legal Aid for the Homeless, using the Public Open Records Act, I then requested a copy of all “no camping” tickets issued since the ordinance was rewritten on September 28, 2000. The response to Legal Aid was that most of those tickets were in storage, but they did have 453 such tickets that Legal Aid could look at. I said that those would do for a start.

        On each ticket there is a section entitled “Violation,” where the officer writes the “charge” (i.e. “Camping in Public Area”). However, there is also a section called “Remarks” where an officer can put additional information. We found that, over and over again, several different police officers wrote things like “sleeping on cardboard, “ or “sleeping and using backpack as pillow” in the “Remarks” section. In fact, in just this one sample, we found 195 bogus tickets. These improperly written tickets had been issued for “camping” when even by the description of the police officers writing the tickets; there was no offense. In the words of the police officers these people were merely sleeping. However, when we searched the COA data base, we found that ALL of these “sleeping” tickets had been incorrectly entered under the code of “camping.”

Why is House the Homeless, Inc. so concerned? First, each no camping ticket carries a fine of at least $200.00. Failure to pay the fine or to do free work for the City of Austin which it refers to as “Community Service,” results in a “warrant” being issued. If you are picked up on the warrant you then serve jail time.

        Furthermore, over and over again, we find that even though homeless folks tell police officers that they are staying at or using the ARCH or the Salvation Army to get their mail; police write down the insulting word “transient” instead of writing a mailing address on the ticket. This demeaning term helps deface homeless citizens and enables people to treat homeless persons as non-citizens. It also implies that they are not contributing members of the community and sends the message that the community has no responsibility for their welfare.

        Additionally, failure to write down a mailing address prevents any notification that the ticket has been turned in for processing. A person who is issued a ticket must appear by a certain court date or within 10 days of the ticket issuance. But the police believe that they have two years to turn in the ticket! That means if they haven’t turned it in when you call, you have to keep calling for up to two years just to enter a plea of either innocence or guilt! If the police wrote the word “transient’ instead of writing down a mailing address, there is absolutely no possibility that they can reach anyone by mail about court proceedings. Again, this results in the issuance of a warrant for arrest.

        What’s the big deal?

        If the ticket goes to warrant you have been found guilty by default. In addition to going to jail you can then be denied access to housing by the Austin Housing Authority for ten years because of your “criminal record!”

        House the Homeless, Inc. held a meeting on September 18th when 35-40 homeless folks discussed the issue. House the Homeless, Inc. has called for: 1) suspension in the issuance of all “no camping” tickets where people are merely sleeping, 2) a letter issued by the police stating that sleeping is legal anywhere in the City of Austin other than in a park after curfew or unless it blocks a passageway or on private property without permission 3) the retraining of police officers about the legality of sleeping and the associated issuance of tickets and the use of the word ”transient” and the routine failure to properly note a mailing address.

        At this point, the battle moves into the court system where city officials continue to prosecute folks where tickets have already been issued. In fact, Texas Rural Legal Aid has just prepared to defend a homeless person who was issued a ticket in 1996! Six years later.

        Footnote. Community Court is the court where homeless persons are expected to perform Community Service and “voluntarily” serve time for their “Quality of Life” crimes such as violating the “No Camping” ordinance. On Thursday, February 27th, the Austin American Statesman reported that Stacy Shorter, the 1st administrator of the Austin Community Court, was indicted on felony charges associated with the theft of millions of dollars intended to create housing for poor people at Vision Village. No housing was ever created.

        This is a submission from the Austin Homeless Advocate street newspaper October 2002

 

          Published by the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio November 2002 Issue 57