A woman is suing Bullhead City, Arizona, after she was arrested earlier this year for feeding homeless people in public, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court Tuesday.
Police arrested resident Norma Thornton, 78, in March for sharing food with homeless people at a park in violation of a 2021 city ordinance that heavily restricts the sharing of food for “charitable purposes” at a public park. She had been serving people food at the park since 2018, according to the lawsuit.
“Norma, and the rest of Americans, really, have a right to engage in charitable acts,” Diana Simpson, Thornton’s attorney, told USA TODAY. “And that includes the right to sharing food.”
Thornton’s attorneys, a legal team from pro bono law firm Institute for Justice, argue the ordinance amounts to an effective ban on food-sharing and violates several of her civil rights under the 14th amendment.
It requires people to obtain a special one-time permit, one Thornton’s attorney says she can’t afford, to share prepared meals with a charitable purpose, and limits the distribution of food to a two-hour window once a month. A location is only allowed to host a “food-sharing event” once a month.
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Bullhead City eventually dropped Thornton’s misdemeanor charge, which carried a fine of $750 and four months imprisonment, according to the lawsuit.
The Institute for Justice released officer-worn body cam footage of her arrest this week. The video shows the arresting officer declining to place Thornton in handcuffs as he loads her into a patrol vehicle.
“I’m not going to do that because I don’t think you’re a hardened criminal, I don’t think you’re out to hurt me,” the officer says.
Before making the arrest, the video captured the same officer telling someone over the radio “I think this is a PR nightmare, but OK.”
“It goes against everything I’ve ever been taught in my life. It only punishes one segment of society.” Thornton told USA TODAY Wednesday. “And that’s wrong … I’m not trying to change the world … just maybe make a few people happy.”
Thornton, a retiree and former restaurant owner from Alaska, had been serving people hot meals made from scratch at the park several days a week for four years, according to the lawsuit.
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She said the nearest homeless shelters and food pantries were several miles away, so she thought it would be best to bring food to the people already at the park, where it was accessible, the lawsuit says.
Simpson said the ordinance is part of the city’s effort to keep homeless people out of the park.
“It doesn’t mean we’re without compassion for people who need food,” Bullhead City Manager Toby Cotter said at an April city council meeting during a discussion on homelessness. “Feed people in your church parking lot. Or your private residence or wherever you deem it most appropriate. But to litter and congregate in the park is against city law.”
Thornton transitioned to distributing food in a private alley after her arrest and coordinating occasional food deliveries, she said. But the alley lacks the accommodations and convenience of the public park, where there is shade to guard against the Arizona sun and a place for people to sit and eat, according to the lawsuit.
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“It is difficult and physically taxing on Norma, a 78-year-old grandmother, to serve food in the alley,” the lawsuit says. ”As a result, Norma is now able to share her food with the needy fewer days per week, and for shorter lengths of time, than she could at the park.”
A request for comment on the lawsuit sent to Bullhead City Attorney Garnet K. Emery was not immediately returned Wednesday to USA TODAY.
The lawsuit seeks a nominal damage of $1. It primarily aims to end the ordinance.
Thornton said she just wants to be able to return to the park to feed without the fear of going to jail.
“It’s wrong, pure and simple. It’s un-American. It’s un-Christian,” Thornton said.