DENVER – In a letter sent today, the ACLU of Colorado called on the Fort Collins City Council to abandon an “outrageous, cruel, and absurd” proposed ordinance that would make it a crime, punishable by up to 6 months in jail and fines of up to $2650, to sit, kneel, or lie down in a large portion of downtown, to sit for too long on public benches, or to have more “attended property” than a person can carry, such as a shopping cart filled with possessions.
“The intention of this ordinance is clear. It is designed to give police tools to harass, arrest, and remove people who are homeless from downtown Fort Collins,” said ACLU of Colorado Executive Director Nathan Woodliff-Stanley. “People do not lose their right to exist when they lose a home. Fort Collins should abandon this ill-conceived ordinance and focus its resources instead on real solutions to poverty and homelessness.”
The so-called “disruptive behavior” ordinance would make it a jailable offense to sit, kneel, or lie down within 20 feet of any commercial property or pedestrian walkway or to sit for more than an hour on chairs and public benches or to use them for “any purpose other than sitting.” The ordinance also includes a vaguely-worded prohibition on “unattended property” and language criminalizing the possession of “attended property” unless it is “less than or equal to an amount that may reasonably be expected to be hand-carried by a single adult.”
Along with the proposed ordinance, the Council is considering spending up to $150,000 a year in city funds to purchase beds in the Larimer County Jail to house “repeat municipal offenders.”
“It’s absurd to think that sitting down or having more possessions than a person can carry are disruptive behaviors that must be criminalized,” said Woodliff-Stanley. “Equal enforcement of such a vague and incomprehensible law would be impossible. It is all but certain that the ordinance would be enforced in a discriminatory manner, ignoring the actions of people who have money while harassing those who appear homeless, poor, or of an undesired ethnicity, opening the city to potential liability as a result.”
In March 2015, Fort Collins settled a lawsuit with the ACLU of Colorado following revelations that the city had enforced its panhandling law predominantly against individuals who peacefully asked for charity by displaying a sign, an activity that is protected by the First Amendment and that was not prohibited by the panhandling ordinance. The city agreed to repeal portions of its ordinance, pay the ACLU of Colorado’s legal fees, and stop arresting, ticketing, citing, or interfering with the rights of people who peacefully ask for charity.