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King County Sheriff questions constitutionality of Burien's camping ban

caption: Tents are set up outside of the Oasis Home Church on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, in Burien, Washington.
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Tents are set up outside of the Oasis Home Church on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, in Burien, Washington.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

King County and its Sheriff's Office are raising questions about Burien's ban on public camping and are asking a federal court for answers. Until they get those answers, deputies won't be enforcing the ban.

“The promise I made as a sworn peace officer calls on me to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution," King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall said in a statement. "Doing our job for the communities we serve requires legal clarity on the constitutionality of the laws we’re asked to enforce."

RELATED: People experiencing homelessness in Burien sue city over camping ban

The County and the Sheriff's Office have filed a complaint with the United States District Court over the anti-camping ordinance the Burien City Council passed last week (which doubles down on, and clarifies, a ban the Council passed in September 2023). Under the ordinance, people may not rest, sleep, or lay down on public property between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. A violation could result in a fine or misdemeanor. Tents and campsites also are not allowed within 500 feet of daycares, parks, libraries, and schools.

The city of Burien doesn't technically have a police department of its own. It contracts with the King County Sheriff's Office to provide police services. Therefore, when Burien passes a law for its jurisdiction, a sheriff's deputy enforces it.

A Sheriff's Office spokesperson confirmed with KUOW that deputies will not be enforcing the camping ban until the county gets answers from the court. All criminal code violations, however, will still be enforced.

“When Burien hastily passed this new ordinance without consulting with us or legal experts, they put the rights of their residents in jeopardy," the sheriff said. "A ruling from the Court is a crucial step in ensuring that the rights of all people within our jurisdiction are protected and upheld, and our deputies have the guidance they need to do their work.”

RELATED: Burien’s Sunnydale Village was a ‘safe community’ for over 60 homeless people. Now it’s gone

Burien partially based its ban on a similar law in Bellevue. It also took into account case law that has previously made it difficult for cities to outlaw sleeping in public. That led to some nuance around the ban. If there are no shelter beds available to send campers to, then a person is "not guilty of unlawful public camping," the ordinance states. Also, the city manager has the power to set aside places for people to camp overnight.

King County argues that Burien's approach is "unique." It's exclusion zones could make it a crime for a person simply being present in an area.

This is not the first time such questions have been raised about Burien's camping ban. Two people experiencing homelessness sued the city in 2023, arguing that it violates the Constitution and criminalizes homelessness.

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