By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The House will take up a bill on Monday that is designed to evict Occupy Nashville but could also be used to jail homeless people around the state.
The “Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012” makes it a crime to camp on any state-owned land that is not specifically designated for camping — not just the War Memorial Plaza near the Capitol where Occupy Nashville protesters have set up tents.
And the definition of camping is very broad. It includes “storing personal belongings, making any fire, doing any digging or earth breaking or carrying on cooking activities.”
Those violating the proposed law could have their belongings seized and be charged with a Class A misdemeanor — the most serious type of misdemeanor, punishable by nearly a year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500 or both.
“This will adversely affect the homeless, because it is too broad,” said Bob Tuke, an advocate for homeless veterans with the charity Operation Stand Down Nashville and a former chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party.
“Any veteran who happens to be on state-owned property and is arrested because of this, I can’t tell you how deeply that idea offends me as a veteran,” he said.
Sen. Dolores Gresham, who also is a veteran, said in a Monday interview that the purpose of the bill she co-sponsored was to make the grounds around the Capitol available to everyone by clearing out the permanent encampment of Occupy Nashville protesters.
“Certainly that was never the intent that the homeless would be in any way impacted by this bill,” the Somerville Republican said.
“People who want to protest can protest all day long. You just can’t camp on places that are not designated for that.”
The Senate passed the bill on Thursday by a vote of 20-10. The House already approved a version of the bill earlier this month on a 70-26 vote. On Monday, it will vote on the new version.
The bill comes at the same time Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration is seeking to break up the Occupy Nashville encampment by establishing rules for the use of the War Memorial Plaza. A draft of those rules was released on Friday and a public hearing is scheduled for April 16.
House sponsor Eric Watson, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, would like to see the tents gone sooner than that. In an earlier interview, Watson said he would like to have the encampment cleared before the spring, when school groups from around the state start to come visit the Capitol.
Watson said in the previous interview that he did not believe the bill would have any unintended consequences. He did not indicate at the time whether he meant the bill to affect homeless people camped on state-owned land far from the War Memorial Plaza. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
The one House Republican who did not vote for the earlier version of the bill was Rep. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains.
Niceley said after the vote that he was concerned the bill was too broad.
“I’d rather limit it to the plaza out here,” he said.