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Charlotte City Council restores criminal penalties for public urination, drinking and more

Kenneth Beck sits on a bench in First Ward Park in uptown.
Elvis Menayese
Kenneth Beck sits on a bench in First Ward Park in uptown.

The Charlotte City Council voted 7-3 Monday night to recriminalize several quality-of-life infractions, such as public urination and defecation and public masturbation. The vote came after hours of debate and more than 30 people speaking for and against the change — many of them concerned about the impact on homeless people.

Last year, residents of Fourth Ward in uptown complained that people were drinking and relieving themselves in public.

Currently, police can only write citations for those offenses, and residents said they wanted officers to have the ability to arrest people who refused to comply.

Residents of Fourth Ward uptown say the city of Charlotte should not have decriminalized public drinking and public defecation and urination last year.

Chris Connelly, a Fourth Ward resident, favored the ordinance. He held up a picture of what he said was human waste next to a Little Free Library in the park.

"No child should have to be exposed to that when they are just trying to read a book in a park. No parent should have to make a choice of whether to read with their children or to avoid raw human waste," he said.

But some speakers at Monday's meeting said the city would be, in effect, criminalizing homelessness.

"I wholly understand why we don't want people to urinate and defecate in public spaces. But the way to achieve this is not by criminalizing the act, but by providing alternatives. And this is our moral responsibility to provide these alternatives," said Rodney Sadler.

The ACLU also opposed the changes, and sent a letter to council before the meeting urging them to reconsider.

Council members Renee Johnson, Tiawana Brown and LaWana Mayfield agreed with Sadler's view and voted no. Victoria Watlington was absent and did not vote. Johnson asked people in the council chamber how many times they had to use the bathroom in a day, and then asked what they would do if they were homeless.

"Now, would the threat of arrest have diminished the urgency of that?" she asked.

Council member Marjorie Molina, who voted for the measure, said the city is expanding outreach services and will bring portable restrooms to uptown.

"I don’t think this is one of those things where someone says they want to criminalize what would be the unhoused," she said. "I think it’s just enforcing some behaviors."

Council members backed an amendment by Dimple Ajmera to keep two ordinances as non-criminal misdemeanors because of Constitutional issues, including “loitering for the purpose of engaging in drug-related activity.”

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.