Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With urban camping at a crisis level, members of the Missoula City Council this week pressed municipal court officials on accusations that they haven't been holding campers cited for a violation accountable for their actions.

City officials on Wednesday said they've received concerns from police officers who have issued urban campers a citation for any number of violations, only to see the charges dismissed in municipal court.

“We heard from various staff that municipal court has dismissed more than 100 different citations related to houseless people,” said council member Kristen Jordan. “We heard there's a lot of citations being issued by the police and the city attorney tries to prosecute, only to have them dismissed when they get to municipal court.”

Missoula Municipal Court Judge Jacob Coolidge pushed back on the suggestion, saying a recent Ninth Circuit Court decision has changed the landscape when it comes to dealing with homeless campers.

But on the edge of that decision lies other issues, including public nuisance, which can be charged when a camp becomes a public health hazard. From there, it's a question of whether the violator shows up in court.

“We heard there was reference that perhaps we've dismissed 100 of those cases and are somehow flippant about their existence,” Coolidge said. “We ran a report and saw there were 50 cases cited in the last calendar year and we had dismissed two. From our data and perspective, we're not sure where this narrative is coming from that we're dismissing cases, because our data suggests we aren't.”

A recent Ninth Circuit Court decision prevents local governments from citing the homeless for illegal urban camping unless they can offer those individuals shelter. With the emergency winter shelter closed for the season and the Poverello Center full, Missoula currently lacks shelter options.

As a result, a large number of camps have sprung up in parks, and on trails and city sidewalks. The resulting public complaints filed with the city has placed increasing pressure on elected officials to solve the problem.

“We're seeing a lot of urban camping, we're seeing a huge amount of trash in areas, we're seeing camping where the campers are in the middle of a major commuter trail,” said council member Gwen Jones. “I don't think anyone wants to criminalize homelessness, but on the other hand, being homeless is not carte blanche for any type of behavior.”

Coolidge said those who are cited for a violation and appear in Municipal Court often do so after the charge has evolved into an appearance warrant. By statute, Coolidge said it's punishable by a $200 fine.

But expecting someone who is homeless to pay a fine of that size raises questions as to whether the court should impose such a penalty. If it doesn't, does it mean the court isn't holding violators accountable?

“In terms of what level of accountability we can exert from a courtroom when our max penalty for someone experiencing homelessness is a $200 fine, I would say that level of accountability is a pure legal fiction,” Coolidge said. “We feel it's challenging when someone is fined with a financial penalty when it's obvious they lack the ability to pay.”

Jail diversion played a large role in the campaign of Missoula's current slate of municipal court judges. Diversion efforts have been implemented in both traffic court and shelter court, and advocates of such programs say the cost of diversion is cheaper than several days in jail.

But members of City Council said not everyone is willing to follow the rules and the current public perception is that municipal court isn't holding violators accountable.

“One of the things we hear from officers is that they're frustrated because they see the same people over and over again,” said council member Mike Nugent. “If accountability doesn't come from the court system, where does it come from?”

Coolidge debated the accuracy of that perception.

“The premise of that question that accountability isn't coming from the court system – I'm curious where this narrative is coming from,” Coolidge said. “The narrative that we're deviating from the principles of accountability – I'm a little puzzled where that's coming from.”