"Necessity" not a defense in unlawful camping case, judge ruled
While the Vancouver City Council has been debating whether it should even be a crime to spend the day outside in public spaces, the city attorney’s office continues prosecuting homeless people cited for violating the unlawful camping ordinance.
The prohibitions apply during the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m.
City Attorney Bronson Potter said a total of 227 citations were issued in 2016 and 2017.
Attorney Ross Meyers went to trial this month with a client who was charged in July with unlawful camping, a misdemeanor, after a Vancouver police officer found him and his girlfriend in Waterworks Park. They had set up a tent and had their possessions with them. A day earlier, on the Fourth of July, the client had been given notice by a different police officer that he had to stay out of city parks for a week for violating the unlawful camping ordinance.
In addition to unlawful camping, the client was charged with unlawful storage of property and exclusion from parks (for violating the initial notice), both of which are misdemeanors.
Prior to trial, Meyers argued that the city ordinances violated his client’s constitutional rights as they were cruel and unusual and selectively enforced, but his motion to dismiss the case was denied. An assistant city attorney argued the city codes are legally sound because the prohibition on sleeping and storing property only applies during daytime hours.
At the Dec. 14 trial in Clark County District Court, Meyers had hoped to argue a necessity defense because his client had been unsuccessful at securing a space at a shelter, and he had no place to stay or store his possessions. His client chose a park because it was safer than an alley or a sidewalk, he said.
Meyers had planned to call Andy Silver, the executive director for the Council for the Homeless, to testify about the lack of resources available to the client on the day he was cited. There was no place for him to stay or store his belongings, and no legal alternatives to staying in the park.
But Judge Kristen Parcher ruled that the fact that the client would have had to abandon his possessions was not enough of a harm to warrant a necessity defense, so Silver couldn’t testify and Meyers couldn’t make that argument to the jury.
During closing argument, Meyers said his client wasn’t camping, he was homeless.
Jurors deliberated approximately 90 minutes before finding the client guilty on all three counts.
The client was sentenced Dec. 27. While an assistant city attorney asked that our client spend 10 days on a work crew, the judge instead ordered him to perform two days of community service. The judge waived discretionary fines, but imposed $214 of mandatory fees.
Our client’s girlfriend was also charged and subsequently convicted under the city’s unlawful camping ordinance.