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Sleeping on the Streets

Above, the entrance to an alley known as Cooper Court, a homeless camp in Boise, Idaho. A federal appellate court says cities can't prosecute people for sleeping on the streets if they have nowhere else to go.

A 9th U.S. Circuit Court ruling that people can't be prosecuted for sleeping on the streets if they have nowhere else to go has prompted changes in Albany's city codes related to illegal camping. 

The federal appeals court on Sept. 4 sided with six homeless people in Boise, Idaho, who argued a local ordinance banning sleeping in public spaces amounts to cruel and unusual punishment when shelters are full.

Sean Kidd, Albany's city attorney, brought the ruling to the Albany City Council on Wednesday for a discussion in closed session.

In open session, councilors voted 5-1 each on motions to make two changes to the city code: First, people caught camping illegally in Albany will now be charged with a violation instead of a misdemeanor. Second, illegal camping will be removed from the list of offenses that can cause a person to run afoul of the city's enhanced law enforcement zone in the downtown core.

Councilor Rich Kellum was the dissenting vote both times. "I just think we're caving too quickly," he said.

In open session, Kidd said the city had received a letter Friday from the Oregon Law Center threatening a lawsuit if Albany did not remove illegal camping from its municipal code. However, he said, he had already been discussing a reduction from misdemeanor to violation with Albany Police Chief Mario Lattanzio and the city's municipal judge based on the 9th Circuit ruling. 

As a misdemeanor, illegal camping is punishable by fines of up to $2,500, jail time, or community or compensatory service. As a violation, it is punishable solely by a fine of up to $100, depending on the judge's discretion. 

Kidd said anyone charged with a misdemeanor for illegal camping who has not yet been convicted will see his charge reduced to a violation. Convictions that have already gone through the system will stand. 

Likewise, anyone charged, but not yet prosecuted, for illegal camping in the city's enhanced law enforcement zone downtown will not see that used as a strike against him for purposes of being excluded from the zone. 

Lattanzio said following the council vote he didn't immediately have a ballpark figure as to the number of people charged under either code violation.

He said the change from misdemeanor to violation makes illegal camping "no longer a crime," but didn't take a stand on whether he believed the change was a good one.

Given the federal ruling, "We didn't have much of a choice," he said.

Mayor Sharon Konopa said she disagrees with the Oregon Law Center's approach.

"Our ordinances are a tool to encourage someone homeless to work with agencies to seek housing," she said. "The Oregon Law Center, and whoever from Albany asked them to challenge our ordinances, are actually harming the homeless by enabling them to continue their lifestyle. Maybe we should send the Oregon Law Center the bill for the cleanup costs of these camps that the city gets stuck paying."

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