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Homeless advocates plan lawsuit against Medford

Medford lawyer Justin Rosas, center right, speaks about a civil lawsuit he intends to file against the city of Medford with Lawyers for Justice co-counsel Justina Lara, right, and volunteers Eric Navickas, far left, and Jim Yarbrough, center left. The lawsuit surrounds city ordinances targeting homeless people that Rosas alleges to be unconstitutional. Mail Tribune / Nick Morgan

A local defense lawyer said he was preparing a lawsuit against the city of Medford ahead of the City Council’s Thursday night vote on a proposed ordinance that would prohibit camping on the Bear Creek Greenway during fire season.

Justin Rosas, with the pro bono Lawyers for Justice, said that a tort claim notice would go out to the Medford city attorney’s office Thursday afternoon, and that a lawsuit would be filed in U.S. District Court in Medford "by the end of next week or the beginning of the following week.“

Rosas said at a press conference in Alba Park Thursday that the class action lawsuit would focus on “the existing set of statutes” that he alleges the city agrees to be unconstitutional.

“Rather than repeal that law ― as should have been done ― the city opted not to enforce the law,” Rosas said. “Now they are using the fact that this existing law is unconstitutional to try to propose a different law.”

Rosas said that volunteers working with Lawyers for Justice have spent more than 100 hours along the Greenway conducting interviews with homeless people to build the case.

“The reality of this class action lawsuit ... is that it is aimed at the overall scheme of the city,” Rosas said, adding that it’s “not picking on the police department.”

The exclusion zone law, which bans people who commit certain crimes from being in downtown Medford, is a major part of the lawsuit, according to Rosas.

He described the devastating impact for one homeless individual whose statements he plans to use in the lawsuit.

The man, whom Rosas did not name, was arrested for a misdemeanor criminal charge because the man used an outlet to charge his phone on a light pole in the Medford library parking lot.

“That is theft of services, and thus you can’t come downtown,” Rosas said.

Rosas said that arrest is an example of selective enforcement because “neither you or I would ever be confronted in that situation.”

The exclusion zone keeps people away from numerous downtown resources on which homeless people rely. Rosas pointed out that across the street from the gazebo is the Jackson County Health and Human Services building, the primary mental health providers are within six blocks of Alba Park, disability services and the Southern Oregon Public Defender’s office are similarly in close proximity.

“That’s one story, and there are 500-plus stories,” Rosas said. “That’s like a typical level of absurdity for what’s excluding someone from downtown.”

Another claim Lawyers for Justice intends to make is a lack of available space at the urban campground that volunteers have collected through daily calls to Rogue Retreat, with the daily results entered an Excel spreadsheet.

“We’ve heard of people with one-month, two-month wait lists, and you had to call every day,” Rosas said.

When asked if he intends to move forward with the lawsuit if the City Council votes no on the proposed Greenway camping ban, Rosas said “the lawsuit will be filed regardless of the vote,” but encouraged a no vote.

“It’s a big step of good faith to vote this down and to start the other conversations about how to adequately provide shelter and services,” Rosas said.

He warned that although Lawyers for Justice is pro bono, the class action lawsuits surrounding camping laws in the cities of Boise and Grants Pass have proved costly for the cities.

Lawyers with the Oregon Law Center, who filed a class action lawsuit against the city of Grants Pass, were awarded $300,000 in legal fees in October, according to U.S. District Court records.

That’s atop other remedies in the case that determined homeless woman Debra Blake’s $5,000 in prohibited camping fines and fees were cruel and unusual punishment. The city of Grants Pass ended up donating a park as a congregate living shelter, and the city changed the way police enforced laws.

“Simply complying with the case law costs nothing,” Rosas said. “Simply complying with the case law is having an open conversation with the community and coming up with solutions.”

Rosas said he’s open to possible settlements such as expanded low-barrier housing programs such as an expansion of the urban campground program run by Rogue Retreat.

“There is no measure tonight being considered by the City Council to build another urban campground,” Rosas said. “There is no measure being considered by the city council tonight to comply with Boise’s mandate to stop using incarceration to exclude people downtown.”

Former Ashland city councilor Eric Navickas, one of the volunteers working with Lawyers for Justice, criticized the proposed Greenway camping ban as failing to adequately address the fire concerns pushing Medford’s proposed fire season ordinance forward.

“It doesn’t address the issue of fire, it only pushes it elsewhere,” he said.

Navickas described the issues of homelessness as more than just Medford’s problem.

“This is a regional issue that all of our cities need to address,” Navickas said. “When one city criminalizes people more aggressively, ultimately it pushes people around in the valley.”

The latest lawsuit is separate from a proposed suit Rosas announced in September following the arrests of multiple volunteers and a Jefferson Public Radio reporter during the closure of an unauthorized homeless camp at Hawthorne Park.

Rosas said that he is still represents eight volunteers who were arrested on trespassing charges that Lawyers for Justice alleges were unconstitutional, but he expects it’s “going to be a few more months” before that lawsuit is ready to file.

Rosas said that he and others on the Lawyers for Justice team are dealing with Freedom of Information Act disputes with the city of Medford in the six figures.

The city attorney’s office quoted Rosas’ law office $134,669 on Nov. 11 for a public records request they say would involve about 2,000 hours of Medford Police Department records staff time and $2,500 worth of burned CDs at $25 per disc to compile Rosas’ requests, which included “any and all records of homeless camp interaction with Medford police officers from Jan. 1, 2017 through Sept. 29, 2020.”

Rosas’ request reportedly sought video and audio recordings, computer-aided dispatch reports, police reports and 911 call records, along with “any and all records regarding training, discipline, work history and hiring of the Medford police officers who are responsible for enforcing the laws in the exclusion zone,” among other records requests.

Rosas said his present focus in the suit is gathering the communications records between city officials and police leading up to the closure of the camp.

“Only in the last two weeks have they even sent me the email closing the park,” Rosas said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.