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Arizona woman sues city after being arrested for feeding homeless people

Police arrested retired restaurant owner Norma Thornton, 78, in March for feeding homeless people in violation of an ordinance the city passed last year — which she's now suing to stop.

An Arizona woman is suing her city after police arrested her for feeding homeless people, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Police arrested retired restaurant owner Norma Thornton, 78, a resident of Bullhead City, in the state's northwest region, on March 8 after she shared homemade food with homeless people in a public park in violation of an ordinance the city passed last year that bans people from sharing prepared food in public parks “for charitable purposes," according to the complaint.

The arrest made Thornton the first person arrested under the ordinance, according to The Associated Press.

Thornton had been distributing free food in the park to people in need for four years before she was arrested, according to the complaint, which adds that she is seeking an injunction to stop the city from enforcing the ordinance.

Video of the arrest posted by the Institute for Justice — the libertarian public interest law firm whose lawyers are representing Thornton — shows an officer reluctantly arresting her after apparently having consulted with a superior by phone.

Before the officer carried out the arrest, the video shows he told his superior: “I think this is a PR nightmare, but, OK.”

The video shows the officer telling Thornton that she is under arrest and that he will not handcuff her. He also promises to bring her back to the park after her fingerprints are taken at the station, although it's unclear whether he did.

"I'm not out to hurt anybody," Thornton says as she climbs into the back of a police car.

Thornton was arrested after she finished feeding what she estimates was more than two dozen people, she says in the video. That's about the number of people she normally fed during her regular visits to the park, which she most recently made four or five times a week, the complaint says.

Police arrested Norma Thornton, 78, a retired restaurant owner from of Bullhead City, Ariz., on March 8 after she shared food with homeless people in a public park.
Police arrested Norma Thornton, 78, a retired restaurant owner from of Bullhead City, Ariz., on March 8 after she shared food with homeless people in a public park.Institute for Justice / via KSNV

The officer issued Thornton a citation to appear in court, where she was told she could face up to four months in prison and $750 in fines. She rejected a plea deal, and the city dropped the charges, but officials said she would be prosecuted if she violated the ordinance again, the complaint says.

Regulations on feeding those in need

The lawsuit argues that the ordinance violates Thornton's constitutional rights "to engage in charitable acts and to share food with the needy," which it says is protected by the due process and privileges or immunities clauses of the 14th Amendment.

The ordinance also violates the amendment's equal protection clause, the lawsuit argues, by treating people differently based on whether they are sharing food for charitable or noncharitable purposes.

A spokesperson for Bullhead City said the city hasn't yet been served with the lawsuit but that officials are aware of it and have retained legal representation.

"We assert that our ordinance is lawful," said Bullhead City Public Information Officer Mackenzie Covert.

A news release from the city claims that the Institute for Justice video "is misleading and lacks many critical details."

"The City takes the safety of its vulnerable populations seriously, and works to ensure that the food provided to the homeless, as with other members of the public, has been prepared, handled, and served in a safe and responsible manner," the release says.

A statement from Mayor Tom Brady adds that "individuals are free to serve food to any homeless person at their place of residence, church or private property. Our ordinance applies to public parks only."

Under the ordinance, anyone who wants to distribute prepared food at a public park must submit an application for a permit — which costs $30 and requires a refundable $250 deposit and proof of insurance — at least five days in advance, according to the city, whose permit application says the rule intends to eliminate litter, "protect public health, safety and welfare" and "accommodate competing interests and uses for park space." The regulations do not apply to distributing "sealed pre-packaged foods readily available from retail outlets and intended for consumption directly from the package," the permit application says.

If people do get permits to distribute prepared foods, they are limited to hosting one event a month for two hours, according to the document.

Seventeen percent of Bullhead City's population of more than 40,000 people lives below the poverty line, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data cited in the complaint, which adds that the city's three food pantries have limited hours and that they are more than 2 miles from the park Thornton visited, where many homeless people congregate during the day.

'This gave me purpose'

Thornton says in the video posted by the Institute for Justice that she began distributing food to people in need after a friend who had been volunteering to feed homeless people asked her whether she could help out one day a week.

"This gave me purpose and a good way to use my skill and kind of spiraled to doing more and more," she says.

Before she retired, Thornton spent more than a decade as the owner and operator of a restaurant in Alaska, according to the complaint.

Thornton also experienced food insecurity herself, according to the complaint, which says she grew up in poverty and "still vividly remembers nights when her family went hungry." As an adult, she and her five children also spent six months living in an old school bus after her first husband died, the complaint says.

'I'm never going to stop feeding them'

Since her arrest, Thornton has taken to serving her home-cooked meals in a private alley owned by a local business, according to the complaint.

"It's not ideal — there's no tables, there's no grass," Thornton says of the location in the video. "They get their food and they just sit up against a fence."

As a result, "on an average afternoon in the alley, she serves less than half the people she used to at the park," the complaint says.

But Thornton doesn't plan to give up any time soon, she says in the video: "I'm never going to stop feeding them — never."