On Friday a jury found Phillip Picone, a volunteer for the group Food Not Bombs, not guilty in the first trial for a series of tickets Houston issued the volunteer group for feeding homeless folks in front of the Central Library.
The jury found that Picone was not guilty of violating an ordinance put in place by City Council in 2012. The Anti-Feeding Ordinance made it a Class C misdemeanor to feed more than five homeless people without a permit on city property or without the persimmon of private property owners, punishable by a $2,000 fine.
The ordinance has mostly been unenforced for over a decade. However, the city started issuing a series of tickets after the city approved a police public lot, right outside the courthouse where the case was being heard, the lot was an approved public site for any group that wants to give away meals and started funding its own dinners.
According to the Houston Chronicle, an emailed statement from a city spokesperson explains that Houston is funding a meal program at the police parking lot, which is created to attract people to a place where they can take part in a multitude of services “on a recurring basis.
“This is why we fight back,” Picone said after the verdict, according to the Houston Chronicle.
At the time of the hearing, Food Not Bombs received 45 tickets, seeking $254 each for continuously passing out meals at the library.
Volunteers argue that the law is immoral and violates their freedom of expression and religion.
The court is set to hear nine more tickets on Thursday and Friday.
Paul Kubosh, Picone’s lawyer who is representing him and many others in the same situation free of charge, explained the Houston law with slices of cake wrapped in cellophane during jury selection.
He placed the slices on top of a wooden partition one by one, separating him from the jurors. He recalled two Food Not Bombs volunteers who were present. He said that if he gave five slices to people in need, without permission from the property owner he would be fine, according to the volunteers. However, giving it to a sixth person would violate the ordinance. It was also fine if he gave the slices to someone who was not in need.
The attorney representing the city called the officer who issued the ticket to the stand. Adam A. Ancira, an officer with 14 years of experience has worked with the Houston Police Department in the crime suppression unit.
He said he was told to go to the Central Library on March 3 in the evening by Lt. Jennifer Kennedy, who had told him to issue a citation for violating a city ordinance against charitable feeding.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Ancira’s body camera footage shows him leaving his vehicle and handing Picone a piece of paper, “Here’s your warning,” Ancira said. “You don’t feed the homeless.” He said they would issue one person a ticket and wait until the meal had concluded. “We’re not here to harass you or anything.”
Other volunteers stood nearby.
“I’m exercising my constructional right,” Picone protests in the video, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Ancira answered a string of questions after the video ended. “I’m human, too,” he said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “I like feeding the homeless, too. You just can’t do it there.”
Early March was the only time he issued a citation for the violation of the charitable feeding ordinance. Several other officers have since issued tickets to a volunteer from Food Not Bombs every Monday and Wednesday.
In his closing statement, Kubosh argued that there was room for reasonable doubt as to whether Picone had violated the ordinance. The group had been feeding people at the location for 12 years, and in 2012, then-Mayor Annise Parker gave them permission to feed the homeless there. That permission still lives on the city’s website. He argued that the police did not have the authority to give or take away permission, which opened room for reasonable doubt.
Kubosh encouraged the jurors to see the volunteers as people trying to do good instead of the details of the ordinance.
“People have a passion for things,” he said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “(The volunteers) have a passion for getting rid of poverty, and this is how they put it to work.”
The city’s attorney, who, according to the Houston Chronicle had declined to be named, argued that the police’s warning made it clear that the permission had been rescinded.
She said that it “does not make sense” that permission given in 2012 overrode the Houston Police Department’s notice.
The jurors shortly came back from their deliberations with the unanimous verdict: not guilty.