Norma Thornton
© Institute for Justice
A woman is suing Bullhead City, Arizona after she was arrested for feeding those in need at a public park, a lawsuit says.
As Norma Thornton, 78, scraped the bottom of her last pan after serving food to about 26 people in need at a park in Arizona, two police officers arrived.

As one officer speaks with a commander, he says "I think this is a PR nightmare, but OK," according to body camera footage obtained by the Institute for Justice. The officer then approaches Thornton. "Here's the bad news. You're under arrest for violating a city ordinance," the officer says in the video.

"Good news is I'm gonna get your fingerprints, all that stuff. And I will bring you right back here."

The encounter that unfolded March 8 at Community Park in Bullhead City, Arizona, led to a federal lawsuit being filed on Tuesday, Oct. 25.

The ordinance the officer refers to makes it a criminal misdemeanor to share prepared food in a public park "for charitable purposes" without a permit. The ordinance does not, however, require a permit for serving prepared food for social events at a public park, a news release from the Institute for Justice says.

It's on these grounds that Thornton and the Institute for Justice filed the lawsuit against Bullhead City, asserting that the ordinance violates her civil rights.

The ordinance, the lawsuit says, discriminates against individuals handing out prepared food to those in need while allowing others to serve the same food at social events.

"The city has made it very clear 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 in the video from the Institute for Justice.

The lawsuit seeks for a federal judge in Arizona to declare the city's ordinance unconstitutional.

City says ordinance is lawful

The city maintains that its ordinance is lawful, according to a statement posted on Facebook on Oct. 25, and that it "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."

Additionally, the statement says, it still allows for people to serve "sealed prepackaged foods readily available from retail outlets and intended for consumption directly from the package."

Those who want to serve hot food must apply for a food handler's permit, the city says.

"The City takes the safety of its vulnerable populations seriously, and works to ensure that the food provided to the homeless, as with other members of the public, has been prepared, handled, and served in a safe and responsible manner," the statement says.

Bullhead City first passed the ordinance in February 2021, the lawsuit says.

The ordinance was created in response to "years of complaints from families who desired to utilize City parks," the statement says.

"Each violation of the law is punishable with a fine of up to $1,431, 120 days in jail and 24 months of probation," according to the Institute for Justice.

After the ordinance was passed, the Bullhead City Police Department said it spent nine months educating and warning the public about the law with no enforcement, according to an Oct. 25 Facebook post.

"When incidents like this occur, where citizens, even well meaning, violate the law, it becomes counterproductive to what we are trying to accomplish with this vulnerable population," the post says. "We want them to get help to get out of their situation, not keep them in it."

'I am not enabling homelessness'

This is not how Thornton, who moved to Bullhead City in 2017, sees her actions. The town is located in northwest Arizona, about 100 miles south of Las Vegas, Nevada.

"I am not enabling homelessness," Thornton said in a video published by the Institute for Justice. "I am enabling these people to survive."

After noticing the poverty in the area, "she decided to keep herself busy by contributing to her new community," the lawsuit says.

"I'm not making a big impact. It's not that much. But at least some people have enough food to survive," she said in the Institute for Justice video.

For about four years until the day she was arrested, Thornton, who owned a restaurant in Alaska before retiring to Bullhead City, used a public park to share home-cooked meals with those in need, the lawsuit says.

"Norma saw a way to provide a private solution to a major issue in her community, and she must not be punished for helping these people," Suranjan Sen, one of Thornton's attorneys, said in a news release.

After her arrest, Thornton was issued a citation to appear in criminal court, the lawsuit says.

The city prosecutor offered Thornton a plea deal, however, she refused, as "she did not feel she was 'guilty' of anything," the lawsuit says.

The city ultimately dropped its charge against her, the lawsuit says, "though the City clarified that it would prosecute Norma should she violate the ordinance again."

"The city of Bullhead has made it a crime to feed the needy... it makes me really, really angry to put it bluntly, " Thornton said in the video.

Thornton continues to feed those in need — now in an alley, not a city park — according to a news release from the Institute for Justice.

"I'm never gonna stop feeding 'em," Thornton said in the video. "Never."

This story was originally published October 26, 2022 3:52 PM.