On behalf of homeless man, ACLU takes Boulder's "no camping" law to court

Affiliate: ACLU of Colorado
June 28, 2010 12:00 am

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BOULDER – ACLU lawyers announced today a legal challenge to a Boulder ordinance that defines homeless persons as criminals when they are caught sleeping outdoors at night with a blanket or sleeping bag.

“When the homeless shelters are closed or full, it is terribly unfair, and unconstitutional, to impose fines and jail sentences on persons who have no choice but to sleep outdoors,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director.

In the past four years, Boulder police have issued over 1600 tickets for violations of the city’s anti-camping ordinance. The law prohibits sleeping outside with “shelter,” which Boulder defines to include any protection from the elements other than clothing. Thus, sleeping outside at night is not “camping,” but sleeping while using a blanket or sleeping bag is a crime.

Boulder’s homeless shelter, which closes during the summer, can accommodate only 160 persons in the winter, less than a quarter of the city’s estimated homeless population. Advocates for the homeless, including the Boulder County Chapter of the ACLU, urged the City Council last winter to stop enforcing the ordinance. In January, the council instructed its staff to draft an ordinance declaring a moratorium, but a month later the council reversed course and continued enforcing the controversial camping ban.

The ACLU’s client, David Madison, was charged with violating the camping ordinance last November, when he slept outside in a sleeping bag during a night when the temperature dropped to eleven degrees. Madison had sought refuge at the homeless shelter, but there was no space for him. He was found guilty of “camping” in Boulder Municipal Court, because the sleeping bag constituted “shelter” and therefore violated the camping ban. The ACLU entered the case today by filing a notice of appeal which will be heard in Boulder District Court.

“Our case highlights both the absurdity and the cruelty of Boulder’s ordinance,” said Mark Walta, who is litigating the case as an ACLU Cooperating Attorney. “Because the frost-covered sleeping bag was deemed to be ‘shelter,’ the Municipal Court said our client was violating the law. If our client had just slept in his clothes, he might have gotten hypothermia, but he would have been found not guilty.”

“In this case, according to Boulder’s ordinance, it was the sleeping bag that transformed our client from a law-abiding citizen into a criminal, said David Harrison, Madison’s trial attorney, who is also participating in the appeal as an ACLU cooperating attorney. “Persons who are forced to sleep outdoors have a right to protect themselves from the elements, and using a blanket or sleeping bag causes no one any harm.”

In addition to filing court papers today, ACLU staff attorney Taylor Pendergrass wrote to the Boulder City Council explaining the facts of Mr. Madison’s “offense.” While the ACLU continues to oppose Boulder’s enforcement of the “no camping” ordinance against the City’s homeless residents, the letter asks the council to amend the ordinance to ensure that homeless persons who are forced to sleep outdoors are not subject to prosecution, like Mr. Madison, simply for using a blanket or a sleeping bag.

The letter is available in PDF format on the ACLU’s web site at:

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