The Tennessee Conservative [By Paula Gomes] –
Legislation that would make camping on Tennessee public property a misdemeanor became law last week without Governor Bill Lee’s signature. The new law will go into effect July 1st, 2022.
House Bill 978/Senate Bill 1610 states that any person who camps on the shoulder, berm, or right-of-way of a state or interstate highway or under a bridge or overpass, or within an underpass, of a state or interstate highway could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor crime punishable by a $50 fine or required community service of at least 20 hours but not more than 40 hours. A warning citation will be given for a first offense.
The Equal Access to Property Act of 2012 now includes a provision for city and county public property. The act was previously altered in 2020 to make it a felony offense to camp on state-owned property as well as private property. It is now a Class E felony to camp on any public property that is not designated for camping use. The felony is punishable by up to six years in prison. Those convicted of felonies in Tennessee lose their right to vote.
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Last year, The Tennessee Conservative reported on a group of Nashville activists who had joined forces with several outreach workers for the homeless to fight against the eviction of a well-known homeless encampment located under the downtown Jefferson Street bridge.
The activists suggested at the time that the city of Nashville could not evict the homeless from the encampment as part of the land belongs to the state over which the city has no jurisdiction. The new law eliminates all such loopholes.
Putnam County Sheriff Eddie Farris testified before lawmakers in support of the legislation. He said that parks in his county were being destroyed by homeless camps.
The City of Chattanooga has also had ongoing issues.
Those opposed to the new law have had much to say on social media platforms and elsewhere but it’s important to note that the bill says that no one has been convicted over the last five years under the law as previously written.
Convictions are not expected to substantially increase now that the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 has been expanded. Sponsor of the Senate side of the bill, Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta-District 15) said that the changes do not force local law enforcement to act, but it gives them the power to do so if desired.
“This would be up to local authorities as to whether they want to enforce the law,” Bailey said. “This is not mandatory, but just gives them the ability to do so.”
Lee declined to sign the bill into law due to concerns he has with “unintended consequences.”
“I was concerned and am concerned about the unintended consequences so I let the bill go into law, and we will follow up and work with the sponsors to understand the implications and see if there are adjustments that need to be made,” he said.
The governor acknowledged that the intent of the law is to use city property and Tennessee’s parks for their original purpose.
Lee would like to see non-profits, churches, and advocacy groups partnering with state government to better combat homelessness and “find a way forward.”
About the Author: Paula Gomes is a Tennessee resident and reporter for The Tennessee Conservative. You can reach Paula at email@example.com.