Jury convicts Santa Cruz man of four counts of illegal lodging

by Jessica M. Pasko
Santa Cruz Sentinel 03/22/2012

SANTA CRUZ – A Santa Cruz County jury has convicted Gary Johnson of four counts of illegal lodging for sleeping on a bench outside the courthouse.

Johnson, 47, was sleeping next to a sign proclaiming that sleeping is not a crime, a reference to the state law against lodging outside. He and his supporters argue that the state is infringing upon his constitutional to protest the law, which they believe persecutes the county’s homeless population.

After a two-day trial, a jury on Thursday morning found Johnson guilty on all counts. He could face as much as six months in jail per charge when he is sentenced next week.

Johnson was arrested four times in December and January after refusing sheriff deputies’ orders to pick up his sleeping bag and move along. Deputy Daniel Robbins testified during trial that Johnson was arrested twice during one deputy’s shift, first about 10 p.m. and then after being released from jail about four hours later.

Johnson was convicted of the same charge last year, a misdemeanor violation of a state law against lodging outside, after the Peace Camp 2010 demonstrations. The conviction is being appealed.

The county in November instituted a curfew prohibiting anyone not on county business from being at the County Governmental Center from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. The county’s principal administrative analyst, Dinah Phillips, testified that the action was taken after safety and sanitation problems during the Occupy Santa Cruz demonstrations.

“Poverty continues to be crime,” Ed Frey, Johnson’s attorney, said after the verdict. “The judge narrowed the issues that the jury could consider so severely.”

Frey was precluded from using the necessity defense, a legal defense that under state law argues that criminal conduct took place to avoid an even greater harm. Johnson was protesting the law to protect the rights of homeless who have nowhere else to sleep, he argued. Prosecutors rejected that argument and Frey was not allowed to use it in the trial.

“There is nowhere you can sleep legally if you don’t have a property right, so poverty is a crime,” Frey said.

Judge John Gallagher denied Frey’s request to allow Johnson released from custody pending his sentencing on March 29. Prosecutor Shannon Murphy had argued against Frey’s request, citing Johnson’s history of disobeying the law.

“I’ve been angry for a long time about the way you treat homeless people,” Frey told the judge Thursday.