Tennessee is poised to become the first state to make unauthorized camping on public lands a felony.
The move is intended to cut into the rising tide of homeless camping on public property, including parks and highways. The Tennessee Senate voted 20-10 in April to advance the camping felony bill. The Tennessee House passed a version of the new law last year.
Public pressure to do something about the increasing number of highly visible homeless encampments has pushed even many traditionally liberal cities in the U.S. to clear them out. Although camping has generally been regulated by local vagrancy laws, Texas passed a statewide ban last year. Municipalities that fail to enforce the ban risk losing state funding. Several other states have introduced similar bills, but Tennessee is the only one to make camping a felony.
This week, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee declined to sign off on the new legislation, but it still became law because Lee refused to enact a veto of the new law.
SB1610 expanded the Tennessee Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 to include city and county public property. It previously only included state and private property. Camping on any public property not designated for camping use is now a Class E felony in Tennessee.
The law also makes soliciting or camping alongside roadways or bridges illegal as a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a $50 fine or community service.
Bill won’t stop flood of new homeless residents
Opponents say the legislation will do nothing to stop the flood of new homeless residents and may in fact make it harder for them to escape homelessness if they have a felony on their record. Governor Lee said the new law will likely have “unintended consequences.”
Those consequences include a possible increase in prison populations due to the felony penalties for homeless people camping illegally, Lee said.
The governor said the intent of the law was to use the state’s parks and city property as originally intended.
Lee said he’d like to pursue partnerships with non-profit organizations to better combat homelessness.
“Government has a responsibility there to partner with these nonprofits, with churches, with groups that are advocacy groups for the homeless to find a way forward. That’s what I want to see happen in our state,” Lee said.
Sponsors openly stated that the law is targeted to keep the state’s homeless population from taking up residence on public lands and roadways. The law requires that violators receive at least 24 hours’ notice before an arrest. The felony charge is punishable by up to six years in prison and the loss of voting rights.
A long legal history
Some are concerned that the new law will cause problems for more than the homeless population.
In 2012, the State of Tennessee passed the “Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012”, which banned camping on state-owned property. The Act was created in response to the “Occupy Nashville” movement in which protesters erected tents on the state-owned War Memorial Plaza.
The Act made it illegal to camp on any state-owned property that was not designated for camping. A person can only be charged with violating this act if he or she was informed by an officer and failed to remove themselves and their belongings.
The term “camping” was given a specific definition to include erecting any kind of shelter, or other bedding, as well as the act of sleeping and the act of cooking. Just the act of sleeping on state-owned property qualifies as “camping”.
The Act exempted all state-owned campgrounds, or other state properties where camping is allowed.
However, it now appears sleeping in any private vehicle on public land not approved for camping is illegal. As long as you placed your tent, RV or any other vehicle on publicly owned property with the intent of sleeping or cooking, it meets the law’s definition of “camping” and is therefore subject to the penalties.
“It’s going to be up to prosecutors … if they want to issue a felony,” bill sponsor Sen. Paul Bailey said. “But it’s only going to come to that if people really don’t want to move.”
The bill adds local public property to the existing camping felony penalties that are possible for camping on state property if the place is not designated for people to camp there. The felony is punishable by up to six years in prison. Felony convictions in Tennessee result in the revocation of an individual’s right to vote. Arrests on local public property would have to be preceded by a warning at least 24 hours earlier. Items used to camp could be confiscated by authorities for 90 days, or longer if they are needed for evidence in a criminal case.
Several other states have introduced similar bills, but Tennessee is the only one trying to make unauthorized camping a felony.
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