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Medford, Local Law Enforcement Face Lawsuits After Sweeping Homeless Camp

Medford police at Hawthorne Park in Medford, Ore., on Tuesday, Sept. 22 while clearing an encampment of people experiencing homelessness.
Erik Neumann
JPR News
Medford police at Hawthorne Park in Medford, Ore., on Tuesday, Sept. 22 while clearing an encampment of people experiencing homelessness.

Eight people arrested by the Medford Police Department during a recent homeless camp sweep said late Sunday night they plan to sue the city, its police department and Jackson County.

Attorney Justin Rosas, who represents the arrestees, called the arrests unconstitutional, disputing the park was ever closed to the public to justify trespassing charges.

In a statement, and in tort claims obtained by OPB, Rosas alleged arrestees were also denied medication while lodged at the Jackson County Jail, harassed for their political beliefs, and held for hours after posting bail.

Rosas said the lawsuit aimed to provoke better treatment of people living outside in southern Oregon.

“The goal being to make our city more humane, responsive and deliberate in dealing with the homeless,” the statement read.

Around 8 a.m. Sept. 22, about two dozen Medford officers evicted a large number of people who had set up camp at the city’s Hawthorne Park. Volunteers assisting with the camp say some of its residents had been affected by the Almeda Fire, which swept through parts of southern Oregon, destroyed thousands of homes and displaced many people.

Upon arrival, police arrested 11 people, including Jefferson Public Radio reporter April Ehrlich. Most were cited for trespassing, except two who were arrested on outstanding warrants and Ehrlich, who also faces charges of interfering with a police officer and resisting arrest.

Ehrlich’s attorney, Stephen Houze, denied the allegations. Houze declined to comment beyond saying it’s “our position that (Ehrlich) did not violate any laws and was fully within her rights of the First Amendment to perform her duties as a journalist at the scene.”

Footage posted online from a bystander shows multiple officers arresting Ehrlich at the park while more onlookers film from the park grounds. Ehrlich can be heard shouting “This is ridiculous,” and announcing herself as a reporter.

Two days after the sweep, the Society of Professional Journalists' Oregon chapter, of which Ehrlich is vice president, condemned the Medford Police Department.

“Requiring journalists to work from a government-approved staging area where they are unable to observe police actions or talk to people in a public park falls far short of the right of press freedom enshrined in the First Amendment,” the organization said, making it clear Ehrlich had no input on the statement. “Journalists should not face arrest for simply doing their jobs, which include observing the conduct of public officials and law enforcement officers in public places and reporting those actions to the communities they serve.”

Medford officials deny closing the park was unlawful. Deputy city attorney Eric Mitton said City Manager Brian Sjothun ordered the park closed, citing a provision in the city charter that says the manager “shall have general supervision over all city property.”

It’s not clear when Sjothun issued the order or to whom, nor what notice was provided to the general public or media by the time police arrived Sept. 22.

“I would say generally that we consider the closure of Hawthorne Park to all individuals for health and safety reasons to be a lawful closure of the park,” Mitton said.

Similar cleanups in other communities, such as Portland or Salem, do not prevent media from observing from a close distance.

Rosas and his clients dispute the park closure was lawful. In a statement, they said no notice was given that the park was closed and no clear signs pointed out what was off-limits. Rosas called it a “specious legal argument.”

“We do not believe that section of the city charter allows the closure of a park,” Rosas said.

This story will be updated.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting.