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‘The City Has Criminalized Kindness’: 78-Year-Old Retired Restaurant Owner Sues After Arrest for Feeding Homeless People at Park


A 78-year-old retired former restaurant owner has sued an Arizona city over her arrest for feeding homeless people.

Officials at Bullhead City says Norma Thornton violated an ordinance requiring permits to offer home-cooked food at a city park, but the 78-year-old plaintiff and her attorneys say the law is unfair and unconstitutional. The permit requirements are “extremely burdensome,” lawyers with the Institute of Justice said in a press statement.

For example, it requires $1 million in liability insurance, a fee and deposit, and to request five to 60 days before the desired time. Permits only cover two hours and people can only obtain one permit in a 30-day period.

“On top of that, no two permittees may use the same location within thirty days of each other—meaning that, at maximum, the city might allow the charitable sharing of food in one park for two hours, once a month,” attorneys said.

The lawsuit says Thornton, a grandmother who moved from Alaska to Arizona for the warmer climes, was offering home-cooked food for the needy on March 8 at the Bullhead City Community Park. This included homeless people and also those who had trouble paying for a residence and therefore relied on food donations. Thornton knew what they were going through. According to the lawsuit, when her first husband died, she and her five children lived six months in an old school bus while she looked for work.

“The family survived on the generosity of others, and Norma still considers it her responsibility to help anyone she encounters in need,” the lawsuit said.

That’s why she helps.

“The thought of people being hungry — I mean I’m not making a big impact. It’s not that much,” she tearfully said in an IJ video. “But at least some people have enough food to survive.”

No one camped or lived in the park, she said. She said she cleaned up after herself.

“I am not enabling homelessness,” she said. “I am enabling these people to survive.”

But the city had just passed a new ordinance prohibiting passing out food at city parks under certain circumstances. Thornton needed a permit because her food was given out for charitable reasons and was neither pre-packaged nor store brought. As seen in the video above, police arrived at the scene.

“I think this is a PR nightmare,” a responding officer told a supervisor on the phone before telling Thornton the bad news about arresting her. “But ok.”

Thornton did not go to jail for her arrest — the officer said on bodycam that he would only take her in for fingerprinting — but she faced four months behind bars and a possible fine in the ensuing criminal case. The city prosecutor offered a plea deal for community service and two years of probation. Thornton refused. She received pro bono legal representation. The city prosecutor dropped her case, reasoning she was unfamiliar with the new law.

“She now understands it,” the city prosecutor wrote.

Thornton said she had to move her work to a nearby alley, but compared to the park, it lacks seating for anyone there and offers only paltry shade from the severe Arizona sun.

City officials responded by calling IJ’s video profile of the incident “misleading.”

From the city:

After years of complaints from families who desired to utilize City parks, the City Council adopted its Food Sharing Event ordinance (Bullhead City Municipal Code, Chapter 5.36). The ordinance does not stop individuals or groups from distributing food or drink to a homeless person, or any other person, in a City park if the food or drink is, “sealed prepackaged foods readily available from retail outlets and intended for consumption directly from the package.”

If the serving of hot-prepared food is desired, it can be accomplished with a City permit, but requires the demonstration of a food handler permit. The City takes the safety of its vulnerable populations seriously, and works to ensure that the food provided to the homeless, as with other members of the public, has been prepared, handled, and served in a safe and responsible manner. These stipulations are also required of any individual, organization, or business desiring to serve that type of food for a non-social (public at-large) event.

The ordinance does not apply to private groups or family gatherings that do not offer or advertise food available for the public at-large. The ordinance does not apply to individuals or organizations who serve the food of their choice from private property, such as a church or civic club location.

“Individuals are free to serve food to any homeless person at their place of residence, church or private property. Our ordinance applies to public parks only,” said Mayor Tom Brady, who encouraged people to volunteer at the city homeless shelter.

Bullhead City Police Chief Robert Trebes also released a statement:

After the ordinance was enacted, there was approximately nine months where we educated or warned about the ordinance and no enforcement action was taken. The ordinance does not prohibit anyone feeding the homeless in the parks from “sealed prepackaged foods readily available from retail outlets and intended for consumption directly from the package.” It only requires a city permit and the demonstration of a food handler permit if the person or group wants to serve hot-prepared food. The Bullhead City Police Department cares for the health and welfare of all of our citizens and we have been working hard to help the homeless get the services they need to get them out of their situation. Officers have many contacts with the homeless and during those contacts we educate them on local social services and will even transport them to the local homeless shelter if they want, rather than enabling them by just leaving them where they are and bringing them things that doesn’t help them out long term. When incidents like this occur, where citizens, even well meaning, violate the law, it becomes counterproductive to what we are trying to accomplish with this vulnerable population. We want them to get help to get out of their situation, not keep them in it. The citizens who want to share hot-prepared food can do this at churches and private organizations or other private property and we absolutely encourage them to do that.

The plaintiff team views the city’s rationale rationale for the ordinance with skepticism. The maintain the city is just trying to push homeless people out of public parks.

“If the City were genuinely concerned about ‘protect[ing] public health, safety and welfare,’ BCO § 5.36.010, and thought the presence of food was a health hazard, it would have prohibited the distribution of all prepared food, regardless of motivation,” the lawsuit stated. “If the City were genuinely concerned about reducing litter, BCO § 5.36.010, it would have prohibited the distribution of pre-packaged foods, which generate more litter than prepared foods. But the City’s real goal is to remove all homeless people from using public parks, which it seeks to accomplish by prohibiting charitable food sharing by well-meaning residents like Norma.”

The plaintiff argues the ordinance violates Thornton’s 14th Amendment rights.

“The prohibition violates her right to engage in charitable acts and to share food with the needy, which is protected by the Due Process and Privileges or Immunities clauses of the
Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” the lawsuit stated. “The disparate treatment between people sharing food for charitable purposes and people sharing food for non-charitable purposes also violates her right to equal protection, which is protected by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

Institute of Justice Attorney Diana Simpson in a statement that “[t]he city has criminalized kindness.”

“People have a right to feed those in need and have been doing so for the entirety of human history. People have a fundamental right to engage in charity, which is protected by the Constitution,” Simpson said. “There is absolutely no valid reason for Bullhead City to crack down on Norma’s act of compassion.”

[Screenshot via Institute of Justice]

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