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The case of John Ulrigg

A city police officer cruises by on the street where Ulrigg was parked in February.

John Ulrigg and his partner won’t be punished — for now — for living on the street in their RV in violation of city ordinances, although a Missoula County District Court judge ruled Monday that the regulations are valid.

In her decision, Judge Karen Townsend said that a prior federal appeals court decision from Los Angeles does not apply to Missoula ordinances related to unlawfully camping in city limits.

However, Townsend denied a motion by the city to hold Ulrigg and Hammond, who have been living on the street in an RV since the fall of 2016, in contempt of court.

The judge determined that the city had not been able to show that the pair were aware of the court’s prior order — issued in July — prohibiting them from continuing to violate city ordinances, as there was never proof they had been served with court paperwork until November.

Since being evicted from a mobile home court in the fall of 2016, Ulrigg and Hammond have been living in their parked RV in various spots around Missoula. Over the past three years, 33 different 911 calls have come in regarding their alleged behavior, with complaints ranging from the pair letting garbage pile up outside their RV to attracting rodents and dumping their sewage into a storm drain, according to court filings.

Hammond and Ulrigg have denied the accusations.

In June, the city filed a lawsuit asking Townsend to issue a judgment enforcing city ordinances under the penalty of a court order. Ulrigg and Hammond never responded to the lawsuit, leading the judge to issue a default order in favor of the city in July.

In November, after further complaints of unlawful parking violations, the city asked the judge to enforce her order.

Townsend’s most recent decision in the case, issued on Monday, said that while Ulrigg and Hammond were made aware her default judgment was coming, copies of the eventual order mailed to them were returned as undeliverable. The decision said there was no proof that the couple knew they were violating the order during subsequent months. Because of that, they could not be held in contempt.

Ryan Sudbury, deputy city attorney, said the city would refile the request to enforce the order if there's further evidence of Ulrigg and Hammond continuing to violate the ordinances.

“One of the biggest things is we wanted them to be on notice that they are in violation, because they don’t think they are in violation, and on that matter I think we won,” he said.

At a February court hearing to determine whether Ulrigg and Hammond would be held in contempt of the judge’s order, Ulrigg brought up a legal defense. He argued that a 2014 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case from Los Angeles makes the Missoula ordinances being leveled against him unconstitutional.

In her order Monday, Townsend disagreed.

The Los Angeles case involves a municipal code that prohibited using a vehicle as “living quarters either overnight, day by day or otherwise,” that was selectively enforced against homeless people.

The 9th Circuit ruled that the code was unconstitutionally vague — pointing specifically to the “or otherwise” language — and applied unfairly by police.

After the February hearing, Missoula city attorneys were asked to write a court filing on whether the Los Angeles case should be applied to Missoula’s ordinance.

In his briefing, Sudbury said the Missoula ordinance continues none of the vague language that eventually sank the Los Angeles municipal code, and provided evidence that it has been enforced against a variety of parties, not just the homeless.

“The Missoula ordinances provide adequate notice of the conduct that is criminalized, and thus satisfies the first due process vagueness test laid out by the (9th Circuit opinion),” he wrote.

Although Ulrigg’s response hearing should have been about the Los Angeles case on how it should or should not be applied to the Missoula ordinance, he instead used it to reiterate years of his complaints with the city, but also said he is not currently violating the ordinance.

Ulrigg also wrote that multiple members of city government, including police officers, had lied under oath in this case and other matters. He referred to Susan Aaberg, the chief civil attorney for the city, as the “criminal mastermind behind the attempted destruction of my life.”

Ulrigg also used his response filing to demand a $250,000 payout from the city for his previous grievances with Missoula.

In her ruling Monday, Townsend sided with the city on the legality of the camping ordinance, saying the local ordinances passed scrutiny under the 9th Circuit’s opinion, and that Ulrigg and Hammond had not met the bar of showing it violated the Montana Constitution.

“The language of the Missoula ordinance clearly spells out what conduct is prohibited, leaving no guess work to enforcement officers,” Townsend said.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.