Above: Crazy Faith Outreach pastor Ben Charles, right, meets with his wife, Denise, and his attorney, David Roland, before his civil infraction hearing this morning at the Lee Creighton Justice Center in Olympia. Charles was cited and fined on June 19 in violation of a city code for using a downtown parking lot without a permit to serve food to street people.
By Janine Unsoeldwww.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com
The City of Olympia came prepared for battle this morning at a civil infraction hearing against Crazy Faith Outreach pastor Ben Charles.
Charles was cited on June 19 by the City of Olympia and the Olympia Police Department for using a downtown parking lot without a permit. Crazy Faith was using the lot to feed street people, an activity they have done for about four years. The city owned lot in question is on the corner of Washington and State streets, located across from the Intercity Transit station.
Charles was fined $103. The citation was not given to Charles directly, but mailed to a reservation address. Charles is a member of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.
The city was represented by attorney Jeffrey Myers with assistance by deputy city attorney Darren Nienaber. Presenting multiple exhibits over the objections of Charles’ attorney, Myers worked to illustrate that the city has informed Charles and Crazy Faith Outreach that they are in violation of city code OMC 10.16.140, as passed by the Olympia city council in December 2013. The city stated that it has offered alternative locations for Crazy Faith to conduct its mission of feeding street people.
The city ordinance states, in part, that lots may only be used for parking, unless an activity is authorized by a city issued permit, lease or unless the activity is conducted by the city. Crazy Faith uses the parking lot for its service to feed those who come on Thursday and Saturday evenings.
Charles is being represented by former Olympia based Freedom Foundation constitutional rights attorney David Roland, who is now with the Freedom of Missouri. Roland requested that the case be dismissed, challenged the amount fined, and found inconsistencies in Officer Paul Lower’s report.
Given 20 minutes notice, Municipal Judge Christopher Coker presided over the case, replacing Judge Scott Ahlf, after Ahlf revealed a possible conflict of interest.
The non-traffic civil infraction hearing often felt like a criminal trial, and lasted one and a half hours.
While Myers produced maps, email exchanges, and letters, Roland raised multiple objections that the city was trying to call into question matters that were beyond the scope of the citation. At one point, after Myers asked Charles if he had a permit through the state department of health, and whether or not he believed in the Bible, even Judge Coker asked where Meyers was going in his line of questioning.
Roland also pointed out inconsistencies in Olympia Police Department Lieutenant Paul Lower’s report. Lower, who has been with the department for about 18 years, is assigned to walking patrols and specialty operations with a focus on downtown.Although Lower checked the box on the citation indicating that he had checked Charles’ identification, Lt. Lower testified on the stand that in fact he did not check Charles’ identification on that evening, but had on a prior occasion.
In his report, Lower wrote that, “he (Charles) arrived with a large white van…from this van he and other members of his group unloaded large tents and multiple tables and merchandise….” Roland questioned the use of the word “merchandise,” and Lower admitted that he didn’t know what word to use, but the “merchandise” was in fact food, and there was no buying or selling observed.
Lower also said that he had spoken with City Manager Steve Hall and city attorneys prior to issuing the citation, and that Hall and city attorneys knew that he was going to issue a citation that evening.
Crazy Faith Continues Its Mission
Crazy Faith has continued to serve food and beverages to street people since the citation was issued.
“It gets busy toward the end of each month,” said Charles outside the courtroom before the hearing.
“A lot of folks are now telling me that their hours, if they work, are being cut to 25 hours a week. We’re feeding 4,400 servings of food per month. There’s still a great need. Not only is the physical food a benefit, but I believe we are providing emotional and spiritual support as well.”
Crazy Faith supporters Amy and Shea Renecker joined Charles and his wife Denise before the hearing. They said they have been helping serve food with Crazy Faith for almost a year. They said that Papa John's Pizza on the Westside has been especially generous in providing food.
“It’s a service that’s desperately needed in our community – we bring our daughter down and she serves the drinks,” said Shea Renecker.
“The Crazy Faith feed is a safe place, a neutral area. We’re feeding people. It’s a peaceful gathering where people get fellowship. If you need to pray for something, come….” The Reneckers dispute reports that the feeds have posed any problem to downtown businesses.
“We have contact with the Olympia Police Department all the time. They walk on through just to see if everything is o.k. There’s never been an arrest at one of our feeds. We’re being part of the solution to downtown crime. The Harlequin Theater manager even says there’s less crime on the nights we’re here….” said Renecker.After the hearing, attorney David Roland said that he suspects the city is using Charles as a test case, and that the city hasn’t taken further action against Charles because it wants to see what their next step should be.
“I find it appalling that (the city) wants to reserve this space for a 'better class' citizen. Not everyone can afford cars. The city can’t condition a constitutional right to gather as long as they are peaceful and that’s the definition of what Crazy Faith has been doing – they are doing this for a laudable purpose.”
Judge Coker said he would issue a decision in the case in about a week.
For more information about Ben Charles and the mission of Crazy Faith Outreach, go to www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com and use the search button for past stories.