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Judge Sides With Austin In A Challenge To City's Camping Ban

Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for KUT

A municipal court on Friday ruled in favor of Austin's ban against camping in public places.

In his decision, Municipal Judge Mitchell Solomon sided with the city in the case of Gary Bowens, an Austinite who has multiple citations for camping in public, a Class C misdemeanor that his attorneys and homelessness advocates say targets homeless people unfairly.

Last month, Bowens' attorneys argued the city ordinance is unconstitutional and that it violates the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Attorney Angelica Cogliano argued that because Austin doesn't have the capacity to house its homeless population in emergency shelters, Bowens had no choice but to violate the law.

In his ruling, Solomon said his court didn't have standing to rule on that.

He acknowledged that the city has "insufficient beds available for the entire homeless population to be able to access," but said the city's law – which prohibits specific behavior like setting up tents or building fires – is sufficiently clear, as long as police enforce it as written.

"We respectfully disagree," Cogliano said, "both legally and morally, with the court's decision to not rule on the substantive merits of the issue and address how these ordinances unfairly impact the homeless population."

A city spokesperson said the ruling was a "fair interpretation of the law."

"Moving forward, the City will continue to work with stakeholders on all issues impacting homelessness in Austin," Spokesperson Bryce Bencivengo said Friday.

Cogliano said she plans to appeal the decision and that she hope the city attorney's office would welcome a challenge to the law.

"I guess I would hope that the city would welcome a ruling on the merits," she said. "Because one would expect that people that are prosecuting under an ordinance would be willing to defend it – and would be willing to have a ruling on whether it's cruel and unusual punishment." 

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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