Arizona Woman Sues City After Being Arrested for Feeding Homeless People

Seventy-eight-year-old Norma Thornton is seeking a nominal damage of $1 as well as an injunction to stop Bullhead City from enforcing the ordinance.

View this video on YouTube

An Arizona woman is taking legal action after her philanthropic efforts led to a criminal charge.

According to the New York Post, 78-year-old grandmother Norma Thornton was arrested this year for feeding homeless people in public. The incident took place back over the winter at the Bullhead City Community Park, after Thornton—a retired restaurant owner—had provided food to nearly 30 individuals.

“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,” she told the Institute of Justice.

The officers informed Thornton that she had violated a new city ordinance that restricts public food-sharing for “charitable causes.” She was subsequently arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.

On Tuesday, the Institute of Justice released bodycam footage of the March 8 incident. The video shows the officer consulting with his superior, who ultimately orders Thornton’s arrest.

“I think this is a PR nightmare, but OK,” the cop responds.

The officer proceeds to get out of his vehicle and explain the situation to Thornton.

“Here’s the bad news: You’re under arrest for violating the city ordinance,” an officer is heard saying. “The good news is all I’m gonna do is get your fingerprints, all that stuff, and bring you right back here … Technically I’m supposed to be handcuffing you and everything, too, but I’m not going to do that because I think don’t you’re a hardened criminal.”

The footage shows Thornton getting in the back seat of the patrol car, while she insists, “I’m not here to hurt anybody.”

Thornton was issued a citation to appear in court and was prohibited from feeding homeless people in public. Though she originally faced up to four months in jail, the misdemeanor charge was eventually dropped. 

The woman is now suing the city over the arrest, arguing the food-sharing ordinance violates her constitutional right to engage in charitable acts.

“The city of Bullhead has made it a crime to feed the needy,” Thornton said. “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 is seeking nominal damages of $1 as well as an injunction to stop Bullhead City from enforcing the ordinance.

Since the arrest, Thornton has started giving out food in a private alley, but said the work was much easier when done from a public park.

“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.”

Latest in Life