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Trial delayed after jurors object to fine for volunteer feeding unhoused neighbors: 'A lot of times, a jury will nullify the law'

The group of volunteers has been handing out meals outside of the library downtown for around 20 years.

The group of volunteers has been handing out meals outside of the library downtown for around 20 years.

Photo Credit: iStock

A trial of a woman has been delayed after lawyers were unable to find jurors willing to entertain the possibility of fining her for feeding unhoused people outside of a library.

In January, the Houston Chronicle reported that "too many of the potential jurors" indicated that they would not issue the $500 fine to the defendant, Elisa Meadows, even if she was guilty.

"A lot of times, a jury will nullify the law while thinking they followed it," Clay Conrad, a partner at Looney, Smith & Conrad, told the news outlet. "... At the end of the day, the jury has to decide: Is this guy a criminal, or is he a good neighbor? I could see the jury saying, 'This guy is a good neighbor.'"

It's unclear if the trial against Meadows will eventually proceed, but the delay is nothing new for the city of Houston, which reportedly failed to win any of the 90 cases filed against volunteers from Food Not Bombs.

The group, which recovers food that would otherwise go to waste in order to serve people struggling with hunger, has been handing out meals outside of Houston's Central Library downtown for around 20 years, per the Chronicle.

Food waste is a concerning issue worldwide, with 1.4 billion tons being tossed each year. According to Feeding America, roughly one-third of food in the United States gets discarded, even though 44 million people have trouble getting enough sustenance.  

That waste contributes to the overheating of our planet by producing methane when it breaks down — heat that can create or lead to dangerous conditions for people who don't have shelter or the ability to move to climate-resilient communities. 

In 2012, Houston passed a law that prevented people from giving out meals without permission, and city attorneys told the Chronicle in February that the regulation was in place to protect public health, with potential food poisoning among the concerns. 

Food Not Bombs, however, had been serving the community without incident after receiving permission from the administration of former Mayor Annise Parker, as detailed by the outlet. Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was in office from 2016 until early this year, later revoked that decision.

Current Mayor John Whitmire, who began his tenure this winter, has said that he intends to meet with Food Not Bombs in hopes of coming to an agreement, according to Houston Public Media, but the next steps on that front are still unclear. 

In mid-February, after the Texas Civil Rights Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of Food Not Bombs, a U.S. District Court ordered Houston to stop issuing tickets to the group's volunteers. The citations had almost reached the 100 mark

"We are on the road to not only removing this ordinance, but setting a pathway for other cities to do the same against anti-homeless and anti-food-sharing laws and in general to fight against class war," Food Not Bombs said of the decision in a statement published by Houston Public Media. 

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