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Published Apr. 22, 2007
Updated Apr. 22, 2007

Three homeless men have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Las Vegas, seeking millions of dollars after being jailed on charges they broke a law that was no longer on the books.

Jerry Halfpap, 46, David Hicks, 44, and Eastman Webber, 65, seek $2-million each for civil rights violations. . . . The men were each accused of sleeping too close to a deposit of feces - a law that the city adopted in August but repealed in September.

I don't know about you, but as a trained journalist, I had the strong feeling there was more to this story. So I telephoned Elena Owens, a spokeswoman for the mayor of Las Vegas.

Me: So what's up with the poop statute?

Elena: Actually, it was put in the ordinance by mistake.

Me: By mistake? An ordinance accidentally said you couldn't sleep near a pile of poo?

Elena: Yes. And it was rescinded, but that apparently didn't trickle down to the city marshals who arrested the men.

Me: You said "trickle down."

Elena: Ha-ha.

Me: So, how does a mistake like that happen?

Elena: I'm going to put you in touch with Brad Jerbic, the city attorney.

Me: So, Brad, how does a mistake like that happen?

Brad: To be honest, it was not intended to be in the ordinance. It was a line someone started to draft, and it accidentally got left in.

Me: Did it have to be human poop? Could it have been, like, squirrel poop?

Brad: It didn't specify. We don't have squirrels here, but it could have been lizard poop.

Me: So if a mother superior or a chief executive of a Fortune 500 company caught some Zs on a bench near some lizard poop, either could have been arrested?

Brad: You get the picture. As I said, it was a mistake. There's no possible philosophical justification for prohibiting people from sleeping within 500 feet - a football field and two-thirds - of urine or feces.

Brad said that Las Vegas has a problem with the homeless, some of it involving unsanitary conditions in the areas they tend to congregate, and that this line was a zealous bureaucrat's ill-thought-out effort to address it. It turns out that Las Vegas has made other headlines in the past year over its aggressive - some say harassing - efforts to force the homeless off the streets and into shelters: A federal judge recently declared unconstitutional a Scrooge-like city ordinance making it illegal for anyone to feed the homeless.

I decided to offer the city a little help.

Me: Why don't you pass an ordinance requiring people to carry cell phones or really fancy pens at all times? Homeless people probably couldn't afford cell phones or really fancy pens, and when they can't produce them, you could pop 'em.

Brad: Ha-ha. I see what you're saying, and . . .

Me: Or, wait. What if, to avoid arrest, people on the street had to demonstrate that their underpants are clean? You could have police dogs making that assessment, to protect everyone's privacy!

Brad: You could, you could. I know it's easy to poke fun at this . . .

Me: . . . Have you considered poisoning the food at homeless shelters?

I have to say that by the end of the conversation, Brad was laughing pretty hard.

It turns out that the city settled the case with the three homeless men, each of whom got $10,000 for his mistaken arrest. So in a way, this case is closed. But in a way, it isn't. As a responsible, fair-minded journalist, it was my responsibility to contact the "other side," namely the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, which brought the suit. I had to be tough on them, too. I reached Gary Peck, the ACLU executive director.

Me: Would you say that we have reached a tragic state of affairs if the full legal might of a city is brought to bear upon those who are both disadvantaged and powerless, charged with the crime, essentially, of existing; that the entire affair befouls the dignity of mankind, suggesting that the desperately poor represent a nuisance and are somehow complicit in their misfortune, rather than the truth: that they are an inconvenient reminder of the perilous and heartless nature of life and of our obligation, as humans, to reach out and help?

Gary: Yes.

Me: One more question. This is the tough one.

Gary: Okay.

Me: What the heck kind of a name is "Halfpap"?

Gary: I have no earthly idea.

Washington Post Writers Group