A judge on Monday threw out the criminal case against two formerly homeless people who were scheduled to stand trial for camping on a riverbank near Waterford.
It's the second time in two years the district attorney has failed to convict someone who was caught living outdoors.
Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Nancy Ashley acknowledged she was making a rare move but dismissed the misdemeanor charges of illegal lodging against Tammie Stafford, 46, and her boyfriend, Gary Patrick, 53.
The two said they've struggled with methamphetamine addiction for years but have been clean since they met congregants from the Community Baptist Church in Waterford. They now go to church on Sundays, live in a mobile home park with relatives and volunteer helping the homeless.
"I was impressed with the fact that you both are taking great strides to move to a better place," Ashley said. "Your case to me is very distinguishable."
A prosecutor objected, saying Stafford and Patrick were given multiple warnings to move from their Tuolumne River camp last spring and summer.
"The law applies equally to everyone, and that's why we're prosecuting this case," Deputy District Attorney Meghan Greerty said.
In front of the judge, defense attorney Martin Baker called the prosecution an "injustice."
"The interest of justice was served," he said outside the courthouse.
It isn't the first time such charges have been sought against the homeless in Stanislaus County.
In 2008, a jury acquitted four homeless men caught sleeping in the early morning hours of July 20, 2007, in a bushy area along Dry Creek near Modesto's La Loma neighborhood.
Like Stafford and Patrick, the men were charged with misdemeanor illegal lodging, a subsection of a state law aimed at cracking down on disorderly conduct. It's serious enough to merit up to six months in jail.
The jury deliberated less than an hour in that case.
Stafford and Patrick each rejected plea deals from a prosecutor, choosing instead to fight the charges. One deal came with an automatic 30 days in jail if they were caught camping illegally again. They said they were angry at being blamed for the trash and personal belongings that littered parts of the riverbank.
"We weren't going to give up," Stafford said.
Their camp was on the north side of the river, near the bridge that links Waterford to Hickman. Stafford said she misses what once was hers on the riverbank: a tent, awning, table and butane stove she used to cook fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
Stafford suffers from panic attacks, and the river gave her peace, she said.
"I needed to find what I'd lost," Stafford said.
Now Stafford and Patrick want to get married and get a place of their own. Each has nine grandchildren and four children.
Members of their church were in the audience and cried out when Ashley dismissed the case.
As Ashley let Stafford and Patrick go, she gave them a warning: "Good luck to you. Obviously, the (district attorney's) office and the city of Waterford are going to be watching."
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2337.