Volunteers Arrested for Feeding the Homeless in San Diego Park

Can you be arrested for helping others? If you live in El Cajon and want to feed the homeless, the answer is yes. Earlier this year, police arrested volunteers for handing out food to the homeless population in a San Diego County park. The volunteers, who belong to a group called Break the Ban, organized to help the homeless after the El Cajon City Council passed an ordinance making it illegal to distribute food on property owned by the city. Their intentional violation of the law could result in some relatively harsh criminal penalties.

Ban on Distributing Food on City-Owned Land

In October 2017, the El Cajon City Council voted unanimously to pass an ordinance that prohibits anyone from handing out food on city property. The alleged purpose of this emergency ordinance was to keep residents of the city safe and limit outbreaks of Hepatitis A. The ordinance, however, has had a direct and significant negative impact on the city’s homeless population. Many of the city’s homeless residents either live or spend a great deal of their time on city property. Preventing anyone from distributing food puts these already-struggling individuals under additional and unnecessary stress.

What is the Penalty for Violating an Emergency Ordinance?

What happens when you violate a controversial ordinance that was recently put into effect by a small group of people? While none of the dozen volunteers who were arrested in El Cajon were carted off in handcuffs, each of them did receive a misdemeanor citation. This citation explains that they are accused of violating a specific law and that they must show up in court to discuss the matter.


In California, violating a local ordinance is a misdemeanor, unless otherwise stated in the law. In some cases, a city will explicitly state that a violation of the ordinance is an infraction, which will carry the possibility of a much less severe penalty. A misdemeanor violation of an ordinance is punishable by:

  1. Up to six months in a San Diego County jail,
  2. A maximum fine of $1,000,
  3. Summary probation, and/or
  4. Community service.

Fighting Criminal Charges for Feeding the Homeless

El Cajon law explicitly prohibits anyone from distributing food on city property. More than one dozen Break the Ban members knowingly and intentionally violated this law and handed out food to the city’s hungry homeless population. How can the volunteers defend their actions and beat the criminal charges they face?


Since these volunteers knowingly violated the law (and planned to do so) they will not be able to assert some of the most frequently used defenses: lack of intent and/or lack of knowledge. In many cases, you cannot be convicted of a crime if you didn’t intend to commit the crime or weren’t aware that you were committing a crime. As a result, the volunteers will have to rely on other, non-traditional arguments.

The volunteers will likely borrow from the playbook of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and argue that the El Cajon law is unjust. While he was in prison, King Jr. wrote in a letter “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” If the volunteers can prove that the law is discriminatory and unjust, a court may be reluctant to convict them of any criminal charges. Their arrests could ultimately lead to an intense and lengthy dispute over the Constitutionality the law. If a court determines that the law is discriminatory and unjust, the ordinance may be overturned. The volunteers cannot be convicted of a crime that does not exist.

San Diego Criminal Defense Attorney

If you’ve been charged with a crime – whether it’s for feeding the homeless, shoplifting, or attempted murder – it is incredibly important to fight for your future. If you are ever convicted of a crime you will be exposed to the criminal and collateral consequences that come with a criminal record. Having a record can make it difficult to get a job, find safe housing, and even participate in government welfare programs. You have the right and the power to defend yourself against any criminal charges, and the attorneys at the San Diego Criminal Law Center can help. Call us today to schedule a free consultation and learn more.

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