Thursday, October 11, 2007

More coverage of Eric's trial & LadleFest

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/orl-mmontanez1007oct10,0,110481.story

Man who feeds homeless cleared

Kate Santich |Sentinel Staff Writer
[published[ October 10, 2007

In a case watched closely by homeless advocates around the country, Orlando jurors Tuesday acquitted 22-year-old Eric Montanez of violating the city's controversial ban on large group feedings in public parks.

Montanez, who faced up to six months in jail and a $500 fine for the misdemeanor, said he never lost faith during his two-day trial, believing the jury "would not convict a person for feeding the homeless."

Immediately after the verdict, Orange County Judge Steve Jewett praised Montanez for wanting to help those less fortunate but cautioned him that "you do need to follow the law."

But outside the courtroom, Montanez vowed to continue his group's weekly feedings at Lake Eola and stuck with his contention that volunteers already were in compliance with the 2006 ordinance, which prohibits feedings of 25 or more people in city parks without a permit. The law also limits each group to two permits per park per year.

Although the feedings regularly attract more than 50 people -- some said more than 100 -- volunteers have said there are several groups sponsoring the feedings and that no one group is feeding more than 24 people at a time. Much of the testimony focused on what appeared to be varying interpretations of the law.

City prosecutor Kimberly Laskoff had no comment on the verdict, but Orlando Police Department spokeswoman Barbara Jones issued a statement Tuesday evening saying: "It appears the jury felt the defendant did not violate the city ordinance. That said, the city will continue to enforce this ordinance, as it is a vehicle for the city to balance the needs and safety of residents visiting the park and those who desire to feed in the park."

The April 4 arrest was the city's first and only enforcement of the ordinance so far.

Across the country, several major cities have passed laws aimed at keeping the homeless out of upscale neighborhoods or tourist destinations -- a trend some call "the criminalization of homelessness."

According to a report by the nonprofit National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, tactics have included bans or restrictions on panhandling, sleeping in public and loitering, as well as destruction of homeless camps and prohibitions of public feedings.

Dallas, for instance, passed a law effective September 2005 that penalized charities, churches and other organizations that serve food to the needy outside certain designated city areas. Violators can be fined up to $2,000.

"It does seem to be a new trend," said Orlando attorney Jacquelyn Dowd, who represented Montanez and whose nonprofit law firm, Legal Advocacy at Work, often handles cases for those with no permanent address. "Instead of going after the homeless, they're going after people who serve the homeless."

During the trial, though, Laskoff said the ordinance -- while perhaps not "popular" -- was never aimed specifically at the homeless. Instead, she said, it was an effort to control any large-scale feeding for reasons of safety, both to those eating and to others. She called Montanez's volunteerism "a noble gesture" but said he understood the law and ignored it anyway.

"This is a young man who wants to prove his point," Laskoff told jurors in her closing arguments. "He wants to do what he wants, where he wants and how he wants. . . . The defendant himself told you he fed more than 30 people on that single day" of his arrest.

But other testimony showed there was occasional confusion over the law. One week Montanez and fellow members of Orlando Food Not Bombs, which began the weekly Lake Eola feedings in 2004, were told they were in compliance, only to be told the next week they were not. That scene was captured in a video played for the jury.

Whether Orlando police make further arrests or not, the ordinance still faces a constitutional challenge by the Central Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in federal court. That trial is not set until summer 2008. Montanez and the First Vagabonds Church of God -- a ministry run by a formerly homeless man -- are among the plaintiffs in the case.

Meanwhile, Montanez wasted no time in returning to his cause. After speaking to the media, he went immediately to Lake Eola to join an ongoing "Ladle-Fest" held in support of him -- three days of thrice-daily hot meals for the hungry.

But he added, "I'm going to try to avoid getting arrested again."

Kate Santich can be reached at ksantich@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5503.

http://www.cfnews13.com/News/Local/2007/10/9/verdict_homeless_feeding_trial.html

Not Guilty Verdict In Homeless Feeding Trial
Tuesday, October 09, 2007 4:52:03 PM

Not guilty. That's the verdict Tuesday for the man on trial for violating the city's rules when it comes to feeding the homeless.

Eric Montanez, 22, is with the group [Orlando] Food Not Bombs. He was the first person arrested earlier this year on charges that he broke the rules when it comes to Orlando's limits on just how often the homeless can be fed and how many can be fed at one time.

Montanez argued in court the ordinance is unfair and criminalizes homelessness.

To show its support, the group organized [Lake Eola] Ladle Fest, a three-day large scale feeding at Lake Eola Park. It runs through Wednesday.

Food Not Bombs say it's dividing the feeding into several small groups so it doesn't violate the ordinance.

http://www.wftv.com/news/14303721/detail.html

Man Not Guilty Of Violating Homeless Feeding Ordinance

POSTED: 4:52 pm EDT October 9, 2007
UPDATED: 5:39 pm EDT October 9, 2007

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. -- An Orange County man was found not guilty late Tuesday afternoon of violating a city of Orlando ordinance banning mass feedings. It took the jury around three hours to return their verdict.

Late Tuesday morning, Eric Montanez and his attorney tried to get the case thrown out, but the judge denied the motion. One last witness took the stand early Tuesday afternoon before the case was handed to the jury.

The jury once again watched video shot by undercover Orlando police officers the day Montanez was arrested. The officers testified that they remember seeing Montanez and his group, Food Not Bombs, feed at least 30 people, but the crowd grew tremendously throughout the evening.

"You fed as the officers indicated at least 30 people that day right?" the city attorney asked Montanez on Tuesday in court.

"Yes," Montanez said. "I don't know exactly how many people I served."

Montanez told the jury that he believes the law was put in place to unfairly target the homeless.

"My opposition to the ordinance is that it is obviously selectively enforced, criminalization of the poor," he said.

City ordinance bans feeding more than 25 people in one area, unless you have a permit. Montanez said he didn't know he needed a permit that day because there had been so many changes to the ordinance since it was implemented more than a year ago.

"You've been charged once. I don't think not knowing what the ordinance from now on will be something you can hide behind. I hope that you do continue to do the work that you do," the judge told Montanez after the verdict was read.

City attorneys had argued there was a clear policy in place regarding the ordinance, but Montanez simply chose not to follow it.

Montanez already spent two days in jail. If he had been convicted, he could have been sentenced to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. There was no word on whether the city will adjust the ordinance as a result of the not guilty verdict.

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/orange/orl-montanez0907oct09,0,7851947.story?coll=orl_tab01_layout

Lake Eola feedings coincide with start of activist's trial

Kate Santich |Sentinel Staff Writer
5:05 PM EDT, October 9, 2007

The trial of Eric Montanez, the first person arrested under a controversial 2006 city ordinance for feeding the homeless in a public park, began Monday as fellow activists launched a three-day "ladle-fest" at Lake Eola in a show of solidarity.

Fellow members of Orlando Food Not Bombs, the group Montanez joined when he began feeding the homeless at Lake Eola nearly three years ago, served a free hot breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday and said they will continue doing so through Wednesday.

Near a sign reading, "Don't criminalize the hungry," member Ben Markeson said, "Right now the perception of the city of Orlando around the country is that Orlando is heartless towards the homeless. It doesn't care about them. What the city of Orlando wants to do is drive homeless people out of downtown Orlando because they're bad for business."

But in the Orange County courtroom of Judge Steve Jewett, Orlando city prosecutor Kimberly Laskoff told the jury the issue was not whether the anti-feeding law was "popular."

"You need to follow the law," Laskoff said in her opening statement. "Mr. Montanez, perhaps in good will, broke the law. . . . That's all there is."

Yet Montanez would testify he was not trying to make a statement or deliberating violating the law when he was arrested.

"We were complying with the ordinance as much as possible so that we could continue to serve," said Montanez, 22. "That was more important to us than all being in jail."

In fact, he testified, the group had moved its feedings several times in order to stay within the law -- even serving the homeless out of a van parked at least a block away from the park. Moreover, Montanez testified, an Orlando police officer had met with the group five months before the April 4 arrest and told them they were doing nothing wrong.

On the evening of the arrest, masked undercover officers videotaped the scene from a nearby SUV, and one jeans-wearing, unshaven undercover officer strolled nearby, recording the scene with a hidden camera.

"We were concerned," Montanez testified, saying he didn't realize at the time that the masked men in the SUV were police officers -- and that someone from his group called 911 to report the taping.

"It's kind of odd when people sit in an SUV with masks and take video-camera pictures of people who are just eating in the park," he said.

The officers, part of the city's vice unit, said they counted the number of people who were served stew by Montanez until they reached 30 -- five more than the city's legal limit for the number of people who can be fed in a city park without a permit. The city's ordinance also limits each group to two permits a year.

Although organizers of the meals have said that four groups were involved in serving the homeless that evening -- likely to be a focal point of the trial -- officers said they considered it one group.

The trial is expected to conclude today.

Kate Santich can be reached at ksantich@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5503.

http://www.wftv.com/news/14300640/detail.html

Jury Deliberating In Homeless Feeding Violation Case

POSTED: 11:35 am EDT October 9, 2007
UPDATED: 3:20 pm EDT October 9, 2007

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The jury started deliberating Tuesday afternoon in an unprecedented case at the Orange County courthouse. Eric Montanez, 22, is the first person arrested and charged with violating a city ordinance that bans feeding more than 25 people in one area.

Late Tuesday morning, Eric Montanez and his attorney tried to get the case thrown out, but the judge denied the motion. One last witness took the stand early Tuesday afternoon before the case was handed to the jury thereafter.

Montanez didn't shy away from what he believes in, spending more than an hour on the stand Tuesday morning and part of Monday telling the jury that he is only out to feed the hungry.

The jury once again watched video shot by undercover Orlando police officers the day Montanez was arrested. The officers testified that they remember seeing Montanez and his group, Food Not Bombs, feed at least 30 people, but the crowd grew tremendously throughout the evening.

"You fed as the officers indicated at least 30 people that day right?" the city attorney asked Montanez on Tuesday in court.

"Yes," Montanez said. "I don't know exactly how many people I served."

"But roughly that if not more right?" the attorney asked.

"Yes," Montanez said.

City ordinance bans feeding more than 25 people in one area, unless you have a permit. Montanez said he didn't know he needed a permit that day because there had been so many changes to the ordinance since it was implemented more than a year ago.

Montanez told the jury that he believes the law was put in place to unfairly target the homeless.

"My opposition to the ordinance is that it is obviously selectively enforced, criminalization of the poor," he said.

City attorneys argued there is a clear policy in place regarding the ordinance, but Montanez simply chose not to follow it.

Montanez already spent two days in jail. If he's convicted, he could get sentenced to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. If he's acquitted, there's no word on whether the city will tweak the ordinance as a result.

1 comment:

Abbie Harris said...

I'm happy to add a link to your blog. I will be at VegFest with some other Florida vegans, so I will come visit. You guys are doing such a great job at handling this ridiculous ordinance, and the media coverage that goes along with it.