Woman Sues After Arrest: City Has 'Criminalized Kindness'

Norma Thornton violated ordinance in Bullhead City, Ariz., by feeding homeless people
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 28, 2022 7:15 AM CDT
She Fed Homeless People and Got Arrested. Now She's Suing
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/kuarmungadd)

An elderly Arizona woman is the first person to be arrested under a city ordinance after she shared food with people in need in a public park—and the first now to sue her hometown over that ordinance, per the AP. Norma Thornton, a 78-year-old retired restaurant owner, was arrested back in March in Bullhead City for passing out free food she'd prepared at home to individuals (some of them homeless) in the city's Community Park, something she'd done regularly for at least four years, per her complaint filed Tuesday. Thornton had noticed after moving to Bullhead City that the park was "several miles away from the nearest shelter or food pantry," and so she thought her expertise and home cooking could help those who needed sustenance, according to her suit.

Problems arose, however, because Thornton was technically breaching the city's May 2021 ordinance against sharing food in public parks, which requires a $30 permit, proof of insurance, and a $250 refundable deposit within five days of food distribution. Even then, those who obtain such a permit can only hand out food once a month for two hours. The city says the rule is meant to "protect public health, safety, and welfare" and to "accommodate competing interests and uses for park space." Mayor Tom Brady notes the ordinance applies only to public parks, and that churches, clubs, and private property are fair game without a permit.

The Institute of Justice, which is representing Thornton, has posted video of her arrest on March 8, in which the arresting officer even seems reluctant to haul her down to the police station. "I think this is a PR nightmare, but OK," he's heard telling his superior, per NBC. Thornton was issued a citation and could have seen up to four months behind bars and a fine of up to $750. She wouldn't accept a plea deal, though, and the charges were eventually dropped. That didn't stop her from wanting to sue.

story continues below

Thornton, who grew up poor herself, is now seeking an injunction that would force the city to stop enforcing the ordinance, which she says violates her right to equal protection and due process under the 14th Amendment by taking away her right "to engage in charitable acts and to share food with the needy," per her complaint. "I have always believed that when you have plenty, you should share," she says, per the AP, which notes that, according to a local newspaper, Thornton continues to feed people in need from private property not far from Community Park. "Bullhead City has criminalized kindness," Suranjan San, Thornton's attorney, tells Phoenix's KPHO, per the AP. (Read more homeless stories.)

We use cookies. By Clicking "OK" or any content on this site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. Read more in our privacy policy.
Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.