ACLU appeals Boulder homeless man’s conviction, camping ordinance


The American Civil Liberties Union filed a legal challenge today against the city of Boulder camping ordinance that prohibits homeless people from sleeping outside under a blanket or sleeping bag.

“When the homeless shelters are closed or full, it is terribly unfair, and unconstitutional, to impose fines and jail sentences on persons who have no choice but to sleep outdoors,” Mark Silverstein, ACLU legal director says in a news release.

Asked for a response, city of Boulder spokesperson Patrick von Keyserling told Boulder Weekly, “The city attorney has not yet seen a copy of the complaint and can’t comment on pending litigation.”

In the past four years, the ACLU says, Boulder police have issued more than 1,600 tickets for violations of the city’s anti-camping ordinance. The law prohibits sleeping outside with shelter, which includes any protection from the elements other than clothing. Thus, sleeping outside at night in only clothes is not camping, but sleeping while using a blanket or sleeping bag is a crime.

Boulder’s homeless shelter, which closes during the summer, can accommodate about 160 people in the winter, which the ACLU says is less than 25 percent of the city’s estimated homeless population. Advocates for the homeless, including the Boulder County chapter of the ACLU, urged City Council last winter to stop enforcing the ordinance. In January, the council instructed its staff to draft an ordinance declaring a moratorium, the ACLU says, but a month later the council reversed course and continued enforcing the controversial camping ban.

The ACLU’s client, David Madison, was charged with violating the camping ordinance last November, on a night when the temperature was 11 degrees and the shelter was full. He slept outside in a sleeping bag and was found guilty of camping in Boulder Municipal Court because the sleeping bag constituted “shelter” and therefore violated the camping ban. Today the ACLU filed a notice of appeal, which will be heard in Boulder District Court.

“Our case highlights both the absurdity and the cruelty of Boulder’s ordinance,” says Mark Walta, who is representing Madison as an ACLU cooperating attorney. “Because the frost-covered sleeping bag was deemed to be ‘shelter,’ the Municipal Court said our client was violating the law. If our client had just slept in his clothes, he might have gotten hypothermia, but he would have been found not guilty.”

“In this case, according to Boulder’s ordinance, it was the sleeping bag that transformed our client from a law-abiding citizen into a criminal,” says David Harrison, Madison’s trial attorney, who is also participating in the appeal as an ACLU cooperating attorney. “Persons who are forced to sleep outdoors have a right to protect themselves from the elements, and using a blanket or sleeping bag causes no one any harm.”

In addition to filing court papers today, ACLU staff attorney Taylor Pendergrass wrote to the Boulder City Council asking the council to amend the ordinance to ensure that homeless people who are forced to sleep outdoors are not subject to prosecution for using a blanket or a sleeping bag. The letter is available at

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