Try parking in the wrong place in downtown Denver, and watch how fast the authorities tow away your car.

Yet, pitch a tent or a makeshift lean-to in a public right of way — in a city park; along a bike path; even in that strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb — and the city will have to give you at least 48 hours advance notice before it can move you. Depending on which public property you’re squatting on, you might even get a week. That’s to protect you against the unlawful seizure of your “property.” Says who? A federal judge, that’s who.

That’s right; you get to idle away at least another couple of days in an alcoholic haze or a billowing cloud of pot smoke. It gives you some extra down time to cook up a batch of meth near a playground. And you’ll be able to take a bathroom break in peace — over in the bushes by those park benches where nearby office workers used to eat their lunch. You even can wander off and panhandle passersby on the 16th Street Mall, knowing that when you return, your stash and your drug paraphernalia will be unmolested — at least, by authorities.

All of that is the law because U.S. District Judge William Martinez decreed it so, in a ruling last January. This week, Denver city officials — at wit’s end in trying to enforce the city’s camping ban against throngs of street dwellers and their crime-ridden, drug-infested, wretched encampments — called on a higher federal court to intervene.

As reported by The Gazette, the city of Denver asked a panel of federal appeals judges on Tuesday to lift Martinez’s restrictions. If the comments and questions from the judges at the hearing offer any guide as to the eventual ruling, the city — incredibly — faces an uphill battle.

Much of Tuesday’s proceedings before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals judges focused on tangents and minutiae dressed up as concerns about civil rights. That’s standard procedure, of course, for the activist group that had started the litigation in the first place. Denver Homeless Out Loud sued the city last year to block enforcement of the voter-endorsed camping ban on public property.

The group is known for its street protests and other antics, nominally on behalf of homeless people. Homeless Out Loud’s true level of concern for the vast majority of homeless Coloradans — who never would turn to a life of addiction on the streets after losing a job or a home — is open to question. What should not be in doubt is the group’s utter lack of concern for all the other Denverites who simply would like a place for their kids to play without stepping on discarded syringes. (The Gazette reports that the city had to close two more parks and playgrounds this week because they were littered with drug paraphernalia.)

Given the plaintiff’s M.O., it’s no wonder this week’s hearing obsessed over the city’s supposed motive in asking the court to lift the notice requirement. Homeless Out Loud maintains City Hall merely wants to avoid protests staged by — surprise! — Homeless Out Loud whenever the city shuts down one of the proliferating squatters’ camps. If that’s so, it’s understandable.

It was at one such incident last year, after all, that two Denver police officers were berated with racist remarks and vulgarities by an ad hoc protester — who embarrassingly turned out to be District 9 City Council member Candi CdeBaca. No need to put our police through that again.

The back-and-forth with the judges also got bogged down in the disposition of the camp denizens’ personal possessions and their presumed relevance to constitutional law.

Judge Veronica Rossman said at one point, "The property we're talking about is not, 'I lost my favorite scarf in the park.' I mean, this is property that is critical to survival.”

Sadly, for all too many of those who frequent the camps, it’s the alcohol and drugs, both legal and illegal, that probably meant most to them.

All of it is really beside the point, though. What should matter to the judges is that a community is trying to clean up the festering squalor that accompanies people who refuse every offer of food and shelter from a host of public agencies and private organizations.

They cling, tragically and stubbornly, to a lifestyle that involves stumbling from day to day in a chemically induced stupor. Many suffer mental health issues. They commit and are victimized by violence as well as petty crime. They harass passersby. They scare off tourists and locals alike; they foul the air with the stench of their campsites and open-air lavatories. They aid and abet the drug culture. They blight the landscape with their “camps.”

And when opportunists from the political fringe take up their cause, they tie up the courts. And they tie the hands of those whose only true motive is to make the city more livable. If the courts uphold that, it’ll lend a whole new meaning to “squatters’ rights.”

Denver Gazette editorial board

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