First Tennesseean arrested for felony camping

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Cynthia Dawn Rose


CORRECTION: Cynthia Rose was charged under the “Felony Camping” statute as it was amended in 2020, not the amendment that took effect July 1, 2022, according to the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office.

A homeless Knoxville woman has apparently become the first person in Tennessee to be arrested under a controversial new law that targets the poorest of the poor by making it a felony to camp without permission on government property.

She was, in fact, arrested on Tuesday by officers from the University of Tennessee Police Department although the law isn’t supposed to go into effect until July 1. 

Cynthia Dawn Rose, a 32-year-old homeless woman with a history of minor scrapes with the law, was taken into custody just before 3 p.m. Tuesday when a pair of UT officers spotted her and another homeless person camping beneath a bridge at Western Avenue and Grand Avenue, according to an arrest warrant filed in the case by UT Officer Andrew Zeigler. 

The warrant said Zeigler and a second UT officer, C.K. Colby, saw that Rose had “blankets, pillows and a mattress topper indicating she was planning to reside and camp there for extended periods of time.”

“Miss Rose advised this location was where she had been living,” Zeigler wrote. 

The officer wrote that he’d previously encountered Rose at the site (which is located by the World’s Fair Park) several times, most recently on the day before when he’d given her a “verbal warning and advised her to vacate the area.”

“I advised Miss Rose on multiple occasions to leave the location and advised her multiple times to leave the area immediately which she refused,” Zeigler said. “Miss Rose refused those orders and advised she would leave when she figured out where she was going to go. Officers then pleaded with her to at least move her possessions from the location so she would no longer be in violation of TCA 39-14-414. However, she refused to comply again.”

At that point, Rose was taken into custody, according to police records. The other homeless person, a 48-year-old man, complied with the officers’ demands and was allowed to leave.

“TCA 39-14-414” is the controversial law passed by the state Legislature several weeks ago that makes it a felony to camp on government property without permission.

If convicted, Rose could permanently lose her right to vote or so much as touch a firearm. She would also be ineligible for many jobs and could be blocked from many housing options.

Like most newly passed laws, it’s not set to go into effect until July 1. 

It was unclear Thursday why the UT officers arrested Rose for allegedly violating a statute that had yet to become law.

UT Police spokesperson Lola Alapo provided a copy of the incident report via email along with a statement about Rose’s arrest.

“The focus of this particular encounter was not initially for illegal camping,” said Alapo. “We made contact with the two individuals because they were known to our officers. We have also located stolen items in that area in the past. They were asked to leave the area and one of the individuals complied and left the area. The other individual did not and was arrested.”

She didn’t respond when asked about the statute not going into effect before next month.

Early this year, several Republican lawmakers argued strongly for the measure to be passed although it was heavily criticized by agencies that work with the poor and homeless. Even Gov. Bill Lee, himself a Republican, publicly questioned the wisdom of the law and refused to sign off on it. 

On Thursday, Hard Knox Wire submitted questions to both the Knoxville Police Department and the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office seeking to learn how — or if — the agencies plan to enforce the new law or make it an enforcement priority. 

“Officers are expected to use their discretion and available options to appropriately and ethically address a problem,” said KPD spokesperson Scott Erland. 

“Our department’s position is that homelessness is a public health issue that cannot be solved through enforcement alone, and our expanded Co-Responder Team is a clear example of our commitment to that,” he added.

The DA’s Office hadn’t responded as of late Thursday.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on June 24, 2022.