Bullhead City, Ariz. (KLAS) — A 78-year-old grandmother is suing Bullhead City after she was arrested earlier this year for serving food at a local park to people experiencing homelessness and financial hardship.
Norma Thornton was arrested in March shortly after serving food she prepared to those in need at Bullhead City Community Park.
“I’d just finished up serving approximately 26 or 27 people, and the very last person that came through, I literally was scraping the bottom of my pans, finished off the food, gave him, and as he was walking away, these two police officers drove up,” Thornton said.
Body-worn camera footage of her arrest showed a Bullhead City police officer taking Thornton into custody to be fingerprinted.
“Here’s the bad news… you’re under arrest for violating the city ordinance,” the officer told Thornton, advising her he would take her fingerprints and bring her back to the park.
The new ordinance makes it a criminal misdemeanor to share prepared food in a public park “for charitable purposes” without a permit.
According to the Institute for Justice, a city attorney clarified that people may freely share food in public parks for social events or parties. No permit is required for this.
“The city has made it very… that I can have a party and host up to 100 people with no consequence at all, so long as I am not feeding the homeless,” Thornton said.
The ordinance partially states that city departments have had to address public nuisances and clean up trash left behind from food sharing as a result of people and organizations giving out food at public parks.
Thornton said that this was never an issue for her while she was sharing food.
“We always kept the park clean so that the places were always left as clean or cleaner than when we arrived,” Thornton said. “Nobody camped in the park or lived in the park.”
After her arrest, Thornton was issued a citation to appear in criminal court and ordered not to return to the park to feed people. Police told Thornton that if she did, she would go to jail.
The charges against Thornton were later dropped after she rejected a plea deal, but she said she was threatened with 120 days in jail, up to 24 months of probation, and over $1,400 in fines and fees.
“The City of Bullhead has made it a crime to feed the needy,” Thornton said to the Institute for Justice. “The thought of people being hungry, I mean, I’m not making a big impact… but at least some people have enough food to survive, and I can’t even imagine living in this country and being hungry to be told that you cannot feed the hungry regardless of the circumstances are.”
Thornton filed a lawsuit against Bullhead City in October asking a court to strike down the city’s ordinance against charitable food sharing and arguing that Thornton’s constitutional right to engage in charitable acts was violated.
The lawsuit argued that although there are three food pantries in the city, they are scattered in places where not everyone can walk or drive, with a limited amount of prepackaged food and limited operating hours.
“None are open more than 25 hours per week, with each only open in the middle of the day in the work week. None are open on evenings or weekends,” the lawsuit said. “Most of the food available at the three food pantries, including foods like dried beans and raw meats, cannot be consumed unless cooked. Not all poor members of the community have access to a kitchen or cooking supplies.”
According to the lawsuit, none of the pantries serve hot or prepared meals, and food is limited to one box per family once a month with proof of local residence.
Although a permit is imposed on those who want to share prepared food at parks, “the permit’s conditions are so restrictive that, in practice, it is not a permit requirement but is a categorical prohibition on giving prepared food to the needy in public parks,” the lawsuit said.
A food sharing permit would only allow sharing for a single two-hour window one day per month with at least five days advance notice. It would also cost a refundable deposit of at least $250 for cleaning and maintenance and require proof of liability insurance.
Thornton grew up in poverty and continued to experience hardship after the death of her husband while she raised her five children alone, surviving on the generous actions of others, the lawsuit said.
She retired to Bullhead City years ago when she learned that many people in her new community could not afford food, according to the lawsuit.
“This gave me a purpose and a good way to use my skill,” Thornton said.
Thornton said she is now feeding those in need in a private alley but wants to help people where they are.
“I am still able to serve people… It is not ideal, there’s no tables, no grass, they get their food and they just sit up against a fence,” she said. “When I was serving in the park, word would get out that I was serving, and it was much easier for people to get to me and to the food.”
Bullhead City has a population of over 40,000 with 17% living below the poverty line, according to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Even people living above the poverty line can experience food insecurity, according to Feeding America.
8 News Now reached out to Bullhead City for comment but did not hear back.
“The City asserts its ordinance is lawful and does not prevent a charitable act from anyone desiring to help others in a city park or assisting others in their own home, church or private property,” an official statement posted to Facebook by Bullhead City partially read. To read the full statement, visit this link.