Guilty Verdicts in Freedom Sleeper Trial: Assembly Ban on City Hall Grounds Continues


Right of Nighttime Assembly at City Hall Crushed in Courtroom 1

by Robert Norse

Saturday Jun 25th, 2016 3:45 PM

After an hour and a quarter trial, retired Judge Sam Stevens found me guilty. Chatty and friendly, Stevens initially gave the impression that his ruling would favor the defense, praising the legal work done by attorney Kate Wells in preparing the brief prior to trial (some of the work was done by Steve Pleich).

The only witnesses were Norse and the two police officers who cited him, first on July 5th, and again on August 12th late at night. Stevens stated that the time of the citations was key. It is legal to be around City Hall during the day, but forbidden to be in the city hall courtyard after 10 PM.

The law allows you to be “on the access paths through the area”. We presented photos of me on the pathways. City attorney Gallogly countered with testimony that I’d been off the pathway at different points making audio recordings of arrests. Stevens found that irrelevant, noting it was the “agenda access” argument that was key.

This principal defense was that the City had to allow the public 24 hour access to the agendas that were posted inside the “forbidden” area for a period of 72-hours before any agendaized meeting. Hence, the defense argued, police could not site members of the public for going there if any such meetings were scheduled.

Stevens seemed to wrestle with this argument for a time, but ultimately upheld Gallogly’s response that the proper remedy for a Brown Act violation was a civil lawsuit. Stevens agreed that the City’s violation of the Brown Act was not in and of itself a defense against “trespass” on City Hall grounds at night.

Both ignored the basic fact that City Hall is the seat of government where the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is most important. Denial of the right to be present there to petition for a redress of grievances would seem a classic violation of the First Amendment of both the state and federal Constitutions. I am unaware of any other City Hall grounds that have been permanently closed at night.

It is a highly unusual and outrageous restriction on public access. In Santa Cruz it was done in a backroom maneuver in 2010 to exclude a peaceful homeless protest (PeaceCamp 2010) protesting the same Sleeping Ban issue. A year later this Ban on being around government buildings was extended to a 7 PM -7AM ban at the County Building to drive away the Occupy Santa Cruz movement.

Stevens later made some comments about “making the police job easier to prevent vandalism at City Hall”, but no instances of vandalism were cited justifying such a severe nighttime ban on all public assembly there. Ironically, Stevens himself had turned back Mayor Rotkin’s 1996 attempt to shut down still another homeless protest at City Hall with such a ban.

Gallogly and Stevens both ultimately hinged their decision on a fallacious analogy. “You wouldn’t let someone break into a closed building to read agendas, even if the City should have posted them outside, right? So here you’re not allowed to ‘trespass’ even though the agendas should have been posted in an accessible place.”

Equating access to a public area with destroying property is, of course, ridiculous.
Forced entry into closed buildings at night in a considerably different matter than walking up to a display case to see what City bureaucrats are cooking up. Such access was accepted as a matter of right until 2010, when it was denied the entire community to discourage activists from embarrassing the City about its treatment of homeless people.

The job of the police would be made easier by requiring everyone to answer police questions and submit to searches. But is that what we want to tolerate in a democratic society?

When asked why he has retreated to this new reactionary repressive position, Stevens replied with a smile “times have changed.”

Stevens made much of the fact that police were friendly, gave me a chance to leave, and were acting under orders. Using this line of logic, basic rights can be swept aside by if police are friendly, coach us to give up our rights voluntarily, and are “just following orders”? A sad conclusion–particularly for a judge once a defender of the rights of protesters and the public.

Indeed, the new mythos of the city Staff and the Take Back Santa Cruz crowd sees danger in folks sleeping in their cars. They have removed the grass lawns of the City Hall grounds apparently to discourage daytime resting there. Chillingly the City’s ban on handicraft artists downtown selling their handicraft artwork downtown under the mew Commercial Vending ordinance went into effect on Friday, June 24th.

As the bumper sticker says, “Ignore your rights and they’ll go away”.

I was sentenced to 20 hours of Community Service over the objections of City Attorney Gallogly who wanted me to pay $198. The second citation was dropped.