SANTA CRUZ -- Homeless demonstrators who for three days have holed up overnight on the courthouse lawn to protest a city ordinance against camping actually may not to be in violation of a camping ban at all.

Officials for the county have decided not to take action against the dozen or so demonstrators who have camped from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. every night since Sunday. County code does not list the courthouse property among locations designated as no-camping zones, such as Paradise Park and Carbonera Creek.

Led by homeless rights advocates Robert Norse and Ed Frey, the protesters have vowed to stay every night until the city overturns its ban. But it seems the protesters are goading the wrong government.

Officials with the city, county and courts are in agreement that the courthouse building is owned by the state, but the lawn and surrounding property is owned by the county. County property falls within the jurisdiction of the Sheriff's Office even though it is inside the city limits, and therefore city police say they will write citations only if the protest moves onto city property.

"They're in the wrong place to test that," Mayor Mike Rotkin said of the city's camping ban.

Frey said the group chose the courthouse as a protest site to make a point that the court system will be the ultimate arbiter of whether the city's ban -- which is being tested by several current cases -- is legal. Frey said he knew of no county law against camping on the courthouse lawn, but nonetheless was surprised to learn the city had no jurisdiction to respond.

"I can declare victory then because those are vast grounds, those courthouse grounds," he said. "That means homeless people now have a solution to their decades-long problem."

Not so fast, says Dinah Phillips, the county's spokeswoman. Phillips said county officials may eventually determine the group has violated other rules, such as health and safety codes.

"At this point, we're still evaluating the situation," she said. "They haven't caused problems, but we're keeping an eye on it."

Phillips said the county has not received any complaints about the demonstration or documented any damage.

Sgt. Dan Campos, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, said his agency has no plans to cite the demonstrators on advice from the county counsel.

"They're not damaging public property," he said of protesters. "It's just an allocation of resources in a direction we choose not to go."

County Counsel Dana McRae is on vacation this week and unavailable for comment.

Anger over the "sleeping ban," as opponents have dubbed it, boiled over last week after police said a man told investigators he set a fire at the Santa Cruz city attorney's office because he was upset about the law. Anarchist signs and a rant about the camping ban were spray-painted on the building a week before the fire, adding to concern still lingering after a May 1 anarchist-themed riot damaged 18 businesses downtown.

The city is pursuing a permanent injunction against two homeless musicians who have repeatedly violated the camping ban, a case that resumes in August.

The City Council also has passed recent provisions that allow the city attorney to file ignored municipal code citations as misdemeanors in the hopes that the prospect of criminal charges will deter frequent violators of the camping ban and other ordinances.

Frey represents Robert Facer, a man found guilty in November 2009 of violating the city's camping ban. Facer has asked a three-judge panel to review an appeal of the infraction, a case that was scheduled to be heard in June but has been postponed until September.

"It's our intention to stay indefinitely, until the city police stop busting innocent sleepers," said Frey, who argues the city needs more homeless shelters.

In a fax sent to City Hall late Tuesday, Frey challenged Vice Mayor Ryan Coonerty to a debate about the camping ban. Coonerty, who likely will be named mayor next year, said there is no support for rolling it back, saying, "I'm not going to debate a group of people who are more interested in publicity than finding a real solution."