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Steve Bass found guilty of camping not occupying, but could jury have ruled otherwise without hearing his defense?


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.– You may have underestimated the importance of today’s Camping Ban trial. The local media, social justice community and rights watchdogs missed it. But judging from the police force on hand and the elaborate lock-downs placed on the jury pools, it was evident the City of Colorado Springs thought a lot was at stake. I’ve written already about the draconian motions to prevent defendant Steve Bass from explaining his motives, including a ban of the word “Occupy.” Today the court made audience members remove their “Occupy Colorado Springs” t-shirts, but let the cat out of the bag by the palpable gravitas with which the court officials and police handled jury selection. Except for the absence of TV crews outside, you’d have thought Steve Bass was Hannibal Lector tripped up by an urban camping ordinance at “what happened last year in October at a park downtown.”

Yeah, even mention of “Acacia Park” was giving away too much, the prosecuting attorney preferred to call it “115 W. Platte Ave.” Every so often a prospective juror would stand up and say “I presume you’re referring to OCCUPY WALL STREET?” like he was solving a riddle, but instead of the door prize that volunteer would be dismissed from the pool for knowing too much.

After a trial that lasted one third the length of the jury selection, Steve Bass was found guilty. He offered no testimony, his lawyer, the very capable Patty Perelo, made no closing statement, because what defense could be made? Steve and his council elected not to have him testify, because to begin with, he’d have to swear to tell the whole truth, and if he explained he could only tell part of the truth, he’d be slapped with Contempt of Court.

We thought the jurors might have been curious, after seeing the city’s 8×10 glossy pictures with the circles and arrows telling what each one was and hearing not a peep from Bass, but they didn’t express it, and left after giving their verdict. This is Colorado Springs.

One of the prosecution’s witnesses, the arresting officer, nearly spilled the beans when he identified the defendant as someone he couldn’t have confused for someone else, because he’d said he’d encountered Bass many times in the park and shared many conversations.

“Oh?” the defense attorney Perelo perked her ears and asked, “and WHAT did you talk about?”

“Um… homeless policy, mostly.” That’s all HE could say. He couldn’t explain why he’d encountered the defendant so many times, or what the defendant was doing. Attorney Perelo couldn’t push it, because that would be leading him into forbidden territory. His testimony for the prosecutor was delivered straight from his notes.

There were two police witnesses, a map and several photographs, showing the tent and another showing just the poles. Was this necessary for a conviction? Because it necessitated explaining to the jury that said poles were in their “unerected state”. Not to be confused with the tent which was “fully erected”, which the judge pronounced like expressions which tripped off the tongue in cases of serious crime.

A photo of two sleeping bags required the officer to say he found the defendant sleeping “in the bags in the tent in the park” to prove all the elements of a violation of the camping ban.

The prosecuting attorney summarized it thus: “there was a tent, there was a sleeping bag, looks like camping to me.”

Not according to a dictionary definition of course. But that too had been motioned inadmissible. If you look it up, camping is variously defined as to “Live for a time in a camp, tent, or camper, as when on vacation.” Or as when destitute? Dictionaries don’t go there. That’s more like sheltering.

A couple of other examples: Soldiers sleep in tents. They’re not camping. Mountaineers overnighting on the side of a mountain aren’t camping. Refugees of war and natural disasters stay in refuge camps, but aren’t said to be camping. Anyway.

Steve Bass didn’t get his day in court. Everything he wanted to say he couldn’t. His attorney’s strategy today was to prepare for an appeal, on the grounds that the judge deprived Bass of the ability to defend himself.

Did Bass violate the camping ban as the jury decided? The prosecutor explained that nobody, not the judge, nor police officers or herself or the jury was in the position to decide the law. So Steve Bass has to take his case to someone who can.

Jury Selection
Over four hours were spent on choosing a jury, by far the most interesting part of the day. It took three sets of 25 potential jurors to pick six and one alternate. As the process approached lunch hour, the court was eager to buy pizza for seven instead of twenty five, but they didn’t make it.

As I mentioned, usually a juror familiar with “Occupy Wall Street” was dismissed, whether their opinions were favorable or unfavorable. I saw one juror dismissed because delving further would have meant discussing Occupy too much and would expose the other jurors to more occupy talk than the judge or prosecutor wanted.

On the other hand, many jurors had direct relatives in law enforcement, one juror considered a CSPD officer her “knight in shining armor,” so that was another cause for eliminations.

During the second batch, another juror stood up to say he was a former corrections officer, who wasn’t sure if he might have met Steve Bass “in the course of his duties” which poisoned the entire group by suggesting Steve had spent time in prison. That batch was dismissed. In actuality, Steve recognized him, because they both frequented the Dulcimer Shop.

Though Judge Williams maintained a convivial air of impartiality, he betrayed an awful prejudice. Whenever a juror expressed knowing something of what was in the news in October 2011, the judge would asked them if they could refrain from judging Bass based on the misbehavior of others. If jurors who knew about the protests were let to remain in the running, the assumption the judge offered was that “Occupy” was a taint that the defendant hoped they would overcome.

I don’t doubt that this slant extends well beyond Occupy, because municipal courts are notorious for being rubber stamps of a city’s citation process.

For example, in Judge Williams’ instructions to the jury, he read the sample guilty verdict first, in all its solemnity. When he read the not-guilty sample, he broke character to explain that he was not going to repeat the redundant stuff, etc, etc, and then he told the jury they shouldn’t be swayed by the order in which the two samples were read. The dramatic guilty versus the blah blah not-guilty.

Occupy harassment
Knowing about the prohibition against Steve mentioning Occupy, we thought we’d exercise our right not to be gagged. Could it matter? Should it? How preposterous that Steve was being tried and not permitted to say what he was doing. As if some precedent would be set that a defendant might convince a jury that forbidding a person shelter was a bad law.

So we came to court with t-shirts that read OCCUPY COLORADO SPRINGS. Immediately when we sat down, the judge called the lawyers up and decided we’d have to remove our shirts. We were given a chance to explain who we were, but the choice was invert the shirts, put on new ones, or leave. So we walked out.

I had an extra shirt outside with a peace symbol on it. Admittedly a politically-charged shirt, somewhat iconic locally, because it recalled an event in 2007 when peaceful protesters were forcibly removed from a city parade, one of them dragged across the pavement, an elderly woman who subsequently died of complications. So I knew I might be pushing it.

The point being to give Defendant Bass some context. He’s an activist. Alone without a voice he was a perp. With an audience of protestors he becomes a man of mystery. Every accused person in court is sized up in part based on his relations sitting behind him. Why shouldn’t Steve be allowed to show who his friends are?

As I reemerged from my car, already a police supervisor was yelling across the street to tell me I wouldn’t be allowed to wear that shirt. “Are you kidding?” I asked. I had a bag full of them, prepared for this eventuality if other spectators wanted to show solidarity. He was crossing the street to preempt my bringing the confrontation to the steps of the courthouse.

“Eric, you know the judge won’t let you wear that shirt.”

“I know no such thing. He only forbid things that say Occupy.” I knew this to be true, technically.

But they weren’t budging, they claimed a jury pool was already in the courtroom and they didn’t want to take any chances. Oddly, the officer blocking my way, beside the supervisor, was Good Old Officer Paladino who’d brutalized my friends and me in 2007. So he knew the t-shirt too well. Actually Officer Irwin Paladino’s history of abusing protesters goes back to 2003. I decided to dispense with plan B and invert my black t-shirt so I could go back in.

Did the CSPD make the smart call forbidding my t-shirt? I’ll be the first to admit the CSPD have outwitted the local social justice movement at every turn in Colorado Springs. They’re clever and competent, but they’re in the wrong. The CSPD are stepping on our rights, and overstepping their authority to do it. While it may have been superior gamesmanship, it was wrong.

Have I mentioned that they followed us everywhere? As if we were the accused in need of escort. On the officers’ radios we could hear them narrating our movements throughout the building. When Patrick went to the bathroom, an officer followed him inside and made small talk as Patrick peed. Did they think we were going to Mike Check the men’s room?

At one point we were able to see from a window on the second floor hall that CSPD were conferring with a parking enforcement officer around our cars. She was examining the license plates, getting on her phone, standing by the cars, as if waiting for something. The cars were legally parked, the meters fed, and well within the four hour limit. But who wants to argue with an impound lot? I assure you this intimidation tactic worked very well to send us out of the courthouse to rescue our vehicles.

Meanwhile, another friend came into the courthouse and overheard officers discussing whether to deny us entry again, and by what pretext, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

While watching the jury selection, it was the batch that was being dismissed in full, the court bailiff suddenly bolted from behind where we were sitting and told the judge she’d overheard us whispering about inappropriate subjects, specifically using profanity. This accusation was based on a dear Occupier’s habit of muttering colorful asides. Okay this was true, but in his defense, it was after the jury being spoiled, about the jury being spoiled, but inappropriate none-the-less and he apologized. But to tie all together in the misbehavior was a fabrication. The prosecutor tried to have us evicted, and Officer Paladino chimed in about the confrontation I instigated at the door. That’s when my friend told the judge she’d overheard CSPD officers discussing plans to keep us out, so the bailiff’s actions began to appear a little contrived.

This complaint was finally settled with the judge’s warning that one peep out of us would get us 90 days in jail for Contempt of Court. At this point we knew the pieces of duct tape we’d brought in to use to protest Steve’s gagging were definitely OUT.

Just before lunch recess I was able to clarify with Judge Williams whether the peace t-shirt I had wanted to wear was acceptable to the court. Receiving no objection from the prosecutor, the judge told me it would be okay, and then assured me he’d inform CSPD.

Returning from lunch, once again with the peace shirt, the security screeners nearly didn’t let me pass, but I barreled past with the confidence of someone who knows his rights. This time Officer Paladino came upon me at the courtroom door, swaggering right into my face assuring me he was not going to let me pass. FORTUNATELY before he could wrestle my arms behind my back, another supervisor arrived who’d heard the judge, and I was allowed to proceed. Boring story I know. But the pattern was unsettling.

Then Steve was found guilty, you could feel the city’s giddiness as they discussed sentencing. We’re only talking community service, but Colorado Springs has only one contractor for that, the odious Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful, whose hi profile task is to clean up after the CSPD Homeless Outreach Team scoops up the homeless and puts them in shelters very much in the model of correctional facilities. Steve was able to negotiate a less anti-homeless agency, and that’s the story so far.

One thought on “Steve Bass found guilty of camping not occupying, but could jury have ruled otherwise without hearing his defense?

  1. Typical idiocy of the American ‘law’. A trial about a man found sleeping in a park, yet the judge rules that nobody can find out why he was there doing that! Our Alice in Wonderland legal system matches our Alice in Wonderland politics to a T.

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