SANTA CRUZ -- Deputies rousted the homeless protest camp at the county courthouse just after midnight Saturday, arresting five people and handing out 17 other misdemeanor citations, Sheriff Phil Wowak said.

Up to 60 people have been camping out in front of the county government building since July Fourth protesting the city's camping ban, which prohibits sleeping on public or private property from 11 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. Saturday's visit marked the third time deputies have come to the camp late at night to document the names and the number of people there, taking photos and video.

"We have always respected the demonstration and the right of free speech by the persons demonstrating," Wowak said. "We will continue to allow for the appropriate, legal use of the property for demonstration but that right does not extend to lodging on the property or any other violation of the law."

Around 12:15 a.m., deputies woke up the nearly 40 people sleeping outside the courthouse to inform them they were in violation of the state's anti-lodging law, California Penal Code section 647 section E, Wowak said. The law states it is illegal for anyone to lodge in any building, structure, vehicle or place, whether public or private, without the permission of the owner.

About half the people at the demonstration left when deputies arrived, demonstrators said, while the others were cited. Those who refused to sign the citation or leave were arrested, Wowak said, while one of the people arrested had an outstanding warrant for petty theft.

The city ordinance against camping does apply to the property but it is enforceable by city police only, Wowak said. The state law deputies enforced can be used by any peace officer and has been used by other jurisdictions for similar incidents.

"They went very methodically from person to person waking everyone up, photographing them and asking for their names and IDs," said Becky Johnson, a camp organizer. "I don't know who invoked this section of the penal system. We're looking at 20-25 cases of 647e potentially in the Santa Cruz County court system."

According to Johnson, deputies first came to the so-called "Peace Camp" to hand out a flier that stated: "You are lodging here without permission of the owner or the person entitled to control this property therefore you are not entitled to be here."

The flier said nothing about violating the city's camping ban, Johnson said. Citing the state's lodging code is a tactic not previously deployed by law enforcement.

"I have not heard of anyone being cited for that in this area for several years," Johnson said.

About an hour later, deputies returned and cited those still there, alerting them that if they did not leave, they would be arrested. Those who did not leave were arrested a short time later. Wowak said there were five arrests, one for refusing to sign the citation, others for refusing to leave and another for an outstanding warrant for petty theft.

Those cited and arrested were charged with a misdemeanor violation and are subject to prosecution in Superior Court, Wowak said.

"Our goal was to avoid taxing the judicial system, but I think at this point the crowd wants this type of process to occur, unfortunately," Wowak said.

About a dozen demonstrators remained on the courthouse steps Saturday and planned to stay and sleep and "fully expect the sheriff to come back and fully expect to be arrested," Johnson said.

"They can't keep it invisible," said "Peace Camp" spokesman Chris Doyon, 45, regarding the night raids. "This is a human rights issue that goes way beyond any personal considerations. We have the basic right to live, sleep, eat and exist. This is an unacceptable social policy. Santa Cruz is supposed to be better than that, better than the U.S. norms."

Doyon was the person arrested for the outstanding petty theft warrant, jail records showed. Amber Gulzow, 19, Romero Garcia Jr., 19, and Gary Allen Johnson, 46, were arrested for refusing to leave, and Timothy Smith, 39, was arrested for refusing to sign the citation, sheriff's Lt. Fred Plageman said.

Johnson said she was surprised that law enforcement was using the state penal code to break up the camp because the misdemeanor charges will require public defenders be assigned to the indigent homeless people who were cited and potentially result in jury trials.

Wowak said deputies will continue to police the property and make arrests when people refuse to comply with the law as long as they are able and as long as necessary.

"I'm glad sheriffs finally decided to prosecute these people," Mayor Mike Rotkin said. "Their own demonstration had problems with fistfights and someone brandishing a metal pipe. It was messy, between the trash and urinating. They presented their own evidence why the sheriffs should enforce the camping ordinance.

"Out of about 1,000 to 1,200 homeless people, the city cites one person a night on average. People are finding shelter. It's the people looking for trouble that are going to get it."

Vice Mayor Ryan Coonerty said the community is extraordinarily generous in terms of providing services to those in need, but the degradation of the demonstration is a fast way to reduce public support for those services.

"Santa Cruz offers a huge amount of resources for those in need but they have to want to turn their lives around," Coonerty said. "I hope these protesters would access some of those services to get the employment and housing they need and then turn around and help others who have fallen between the cracks.

Photos by Bill Lovejoy of the SENTINEL Aug 7 2010