A court challenge to Ashland’s anti-camping ordinance lost round one Tuesday. The case heard in Ashland Municipal Court by Judge Pam Turner asked that the court dismiss a case against two people who were cited for camping in their van in front of the Holiday Inn Express on Clover Lane in June.
Medford attorney William Mansfield argued that the city of Ashland ordinance states that to be illegally camping a person must have bedding and other objects on public land which excludes the general public from using the space.
Since the defendants, Daniel Fish and Carol Laughlin, were housed in a van in a public parking spot, Mansfield argued they were not blocking other use nor were they camping under the language of the ordinance. He additionally argued that, under state law, people camping are to be given 24 hours notice, and his clients received neither as they were cited on the spot.
Mansfield also told the court that, under Oregon law, his clients should have been given information about safe shelter for the homeless and agencies assisting the homeless should have also been contacted. None of this occurred, according to Mansfield.
Prosecutor Doug McGeary did not argue that police gave notifications. He argued that they are not necessary.
In body camera video recorded by the officers who cited the couple, they are heard telling the police that they have engine trouble with the van and have not been able to move it entirely out of the area and that they are expecting help soon. Fish identified himself as homeless.
Prosecutor McGeary informed the court that the presence of bedding, the fact the individuals were sleeping in the van and had been warned previously added up to unlawful camping under the ordinance.
He argued that by sleeping in their van they were camping, thus using public space as if it is private. “Exclusive use is when people treat public space as their own property,” McGeary told the judge. He said the ordinance makes it clear that Fish and Laughlin violated the ordinance.
Defense attorney Mansfield told the court the presence of bedding in a closed van does not exclude anyone from using the area, the hotel or any public space in the area. “Bedding does not fit the definition of a camp site," he said. "It must exclude the general public. This does not fit within the definition.”
The emotionally charged courtroom was full as homeless advocates witnessed the hearing and one of the defendants, Carol Laughlin, openly wept. At one point McGeary told the court had the couple had van problems they could have checked into the hotel they were in front of and, if they could not afford to stay there, then they shouldn’t have been in the location. The audience let out an audible gasp.
In the end, Turner denied Mansfield’s motions to dismiss and found the defendants both guilty and ordered them to pay a fine of $110. “I cannot make it less than that under Oregon Statute,” the judge said. Ironically, the price for a room at the hotel for two adults in a room with two queen beds for a Friday night in March was listed Tuesday as $111.
Turner, in issuing her verdict, said her ruling was an interpretation of law, not a statement about the issue of homelessness and homeless people. “The city’s camping ordinance is not the solution," she said. "The courts can only interpret the law. I am not commenting if it should be an ordinance, but it is, so I find the defendants guilty of violating the camping ordinance.”
A tearful Laughlin left the courtroom exclaiming, “I will have to leave Ashland. I can’t be here.”
Her partner, Daniel Fish, said he has no idea what he can do. “I have to be somewhere," he said. "I exist. I can’t help that. Where do they want me to go?”
Mansfield spoke with his clients outside the courtroom and received their approval to appeal to Jackson County Circuit Court. He told them it will be a long road. “You’re doing an important thing here,” he said as they huddled around him in the courtroom lobby.
Prosecutor McGeary said, “(The city) can’t address big city issues. It’s a small tourist town. Medford is a county seat and they get more funding to address these types of issues.” He went on to say Ashland as a community can’t fully address homelessness the way larger cities might. “Everyone gets to live where they want, but they can’t take ownership of streets.”
McGeary went on to acknowledge Ashland offers few options. “These people aren’t doing anything bad, but unwanted. I feel bad they have nowhere better to sleep.”
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.