Texas Bans Camping in Public Places
In recent years, many cities across the country have seen a surge in homeless populations. It is not uncommon to see a tent-city within a city, as many displaced individuals have taken to camping in public places. In large cities across the U.S., small encampments can be seen along public rights of way, under highways, and in public parks. Many see this as a danger to the health and safety of both the public at large as well as to the displaced individuals themselves. During the extreme winter storm that gripped Texas this past February, hospitals in Austin treated dozens of people who suffered frostbite because they didn’t have adequate shelter. Some of these individuals even had to have amputations. Likewise, in many areas, and particularly downtown areas, these tent-cities are accompanied by an increase in crime, open drug use, and health and sanitation issues.
Texas legislators took action to address this new proliferation during their most recent session in House Bill 1925.
As of September 1, 2021, it will be a Class C misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500 for a person to intentionally or knowingly camp in a public place without the consent of the officer or agency who has the legal authority to manage the public place. Getting permission from a city or officer however is not in and of itself sufficient, however. Under this new legislation, a city would have to request that a state agency designate an area of the city to be used for camping. The state must first approve, then the city can give individuals permission to use the area for those purposes.
What’s perhaps more interesting about this new statewide legislation is that cities are essentially tasked with implementing it.
The new statute contains several noteworthy preemptions to ensure that cities and other local governmental entities actually enforce the new law. The bill specifically prohibits cities from adopting a policy of discouraging or prohibiting the enforcement of the public camping ban. The bill further gives the Texas Attorney General the power to bring an action against cities who attempt to prohibit enforcement. Under an action by the AG, a city can be required to pay court costs, attorney’s fees, investigative costs, witness fees, and deposition costs.
Much more concerning; however, is the fact that if the court finds that the City intentionally prohibited or discouraged enforcement of the camping ban; the City SHALL be denied state grant funds for the following year. In other words, enforce the ban or give up state funding.
The bill also contains a number of requirements for peace officers who are tasked with enforcing the new regulations.
Officers can issue citations, or arrest individuals who violate this statute. However, if an officer arrests an individual for violating the statute, the detaining officer must ensure that all of the person’s personal property which is not designated as contraband is preserved. Further, if an officer issues a citation to a person for an offense, the peace officer must make a reasonable effort to advise the person of an alternative place where they can lawfully camp; and if reasonable and appropriate, contact someone within the city or a nonprofit to provide the person with information or other services that would reduce the likelihood of the person continuing to camp in the public place.
There’s no doubt that something needs to be done to help displaced individuals get off the streets, both for the benefit of themselves and the community at large. Time will tell if this new state mandate helps to alleviate some of these issues.
For the time being; however, much of the heavy lifting will fall on the cities to enforce the law and to come up with solutions.
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