An Arizona woman has filed a lawsuit against the city of Bullhead after she was arrested for feeding the homeless at a public park. In March, 78-year-old Norma Thornton was arrested for giving food to the homeless in Bullhead City, Arizona. The city’s ordinance prohibits giving food to the homeless in public parks. An ordinance is a local law that is passed by municipal governing authorities, such as a city council or county board of commissioners. Ordinances also apply only to the local jurisdiction, as opposed to the entire state.
Thornton’s attorney, Suranjan San with the Institute for Justice, has filed a federal lawsuit against Bullhead City, claiming the law violates the right to serve. The Institute for Justice is requesting that the ordinance be completely scrapped on the grounds that it breaches numerous civil rights that Thorton is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States—including former enslaved people—and guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws.” Thornton says. “’People have a fundamental right to feed those in need and have been doing so for the entirety of human history.”
Ordinance violations can be charged as criminal or civil offenses, depending on the type of offense and whether the individual charged is a repeat offender. In many cases, ordinance violations are fairly minor offenses, like parking where parking is prohibited or violating a local noise ordinance. Thornton was issued a citation to appear in court and was prohibited from feeding homeless people in public. Though she originally faced up to four months in jail, the misdemeanor charge was eventually dropped. The woman is now suing the city over the arrest, arguing the food-sharing ordinance violates her constitutional right to engage in charitable acts.
Thornton is seeking nominal damages of $1 as well as an injunction to stop Bullhead City from enforcing the ordinance. An injunction is a court order requiring a person to do or cease doing a specific action.
Since the arrest, Thornton has started giving out food in a private alley, but said the work was much easier when done from a public park.