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Medford defends constitutionality of camping ordinances

A Medford police sergeant walks through a homeless camp near the north end of the Alba Little League Fields in Medford in this 2021 Mail Tribune file photo.

In response to a lawsuit filed last week that seeks class-action status for homeless individuals living in the city of Medford, the city attorney’s office has released statements and documentation disagreeing with the lawsuit’s claims.

Medford Deputy City Attorney Eric Mitton released the following statement Thursday in response to the lawsuit filed earlier this week by Medford lawyer Justin Rosas:

“Because of the pending litigation, the City’s comments must be limited,” it reads in part. “That said, the City respectfully disagrees that its prohibited camping, civil exclusion, theft, or trespass ordinances are unlawful.”

The city’s statement is not a formal response to the proposed class-action lawsuit — U.S. District Court in Medford records show that the city has 120 days to respond from the lawsuit’s May 18 filing date — but Mitton states that earlier this month the city “explained the constitutionality” of the Medford code pertaining to Prohibited Camping, Lying and Sleeping to the National Homelessness Law Center.

In a May 5 letter, Mitton argued that Medford’s codes restricting camps along the city’s section of the Bear Creek Greenway and at Prescott Park differ from the generalized camping restrictions at the center of lawsuits filed against the cities of Grants Pass and Boise, Idaho.

Mitton argues that Medford’s are “time-place-manner regulations”— not laws that restrict sleeping outside on all public property in the city.

Courts ruled in the Grants Pass and Boise suits that cities are not allowed to prohibit sleeping outside citywide unless the city is able to provide “low-barrier shelter beds” — similar to Rogue Retreat’s Urban Campground and Kelly Shelter — for each and every person experiencing homelessness.

The court findings in those earlier cases, however, “expressly allow cities to regulate the time, place and manner of sleeping outside,” Mitton argues, “even without that showing of empty shelter beds.”

Mitton disputed claims in Rosas’ lawsuit that the city’s anti-tent camping ordinance would allow people to “sleep only with bedrolls during the wet, cold Southern Oregon winter.” He said Thursday that the city code “has a number of exceptions for the general rule about tents.”

Rosas alleges that one of his clients in the lawsuit, Robert Bessy, lost access to social services because Bessy was excluded from downtown Medford after police caught Bessy using an unauthorized power outlet to charge a cell phone.

Mitton’s statement Thursday defends Medford’s “Civil Exclusion Ordinance” by citing a June 2018 Jackson County Circuit Court Ruling.

In the case of Richard William Harris Jr. vs. The City of Medford, Judge Benjamin Bloom ruled that the ordinance barring individuals from downtown Medford for 90 days contains “safeguards which render it constitutionally permissible.”

“For instance, a person subject to the Exclusion Ordinance may enter the exclusion zone to work or look for work, travel through the exclusion area, obtain health services, attend religious services ... attend court hearings ... or otherwise exercise a constitutional right,” Bloom ruled.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.