Is SLO’s vehicle sleeping ban unconstitutional?
June 20, 2014
By KAREN VELIE
Amid a federal appellate court ruling Thursday that struck down a Los Angeles law that prohibits homeless from sleeping in their vehicles, San Luis Obispo homeless advocates are waiting to see how city officials will respond.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed that Los Angeles’ ordinance prohibiting people from using their vehicles as living quarters “opens the door to discriminatory enforcement” against the poor. In addition the court said the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague.
In 2010, Los Angeles officials decided to aggressively enforce the city’s living in a vehicle ban in order to protect public health and safety. The city then started a task force to cite and arrest homeless people sleeping in their RVs and automobiles, according to the ruling.
In response, an attorney filed a lawsuit on behalf of several Los Angeles homeless people claiming the city’s ordinance “criminalizes otherwise innocent behavior.” The federal appellate court agreed.
“This broad and cryptic statute criminalizes innocent behavior, making it impossible for citizens to know how to keep their conduct within the pale,” Judge Harry Pregerson wrote for the court.
The court determined that the Los Angeles’ ordinance was a “convenient tool for harsh and discriminatory enforcement by local prosecuting officials.” In its conclusion, the court noted that Los Angeles has many options at its disposal to alleviate the plight and suffering of its homeless citizens other than enforcement actions.
In the Los Angeles case, four police officers were personally sued for their participation in the unconstitutional treatment of the homeless.
San Luis Obispo
In 2012, attorneys Saro Rizzo and Stew Jenkins filed a lawsuit accusing the city of San Luis Obispo and its chief of police of discrimination, harassment and the criminalization of homeless people. Following a decision by a superior court judge that the city’s treatment of the homeless was unconstitutional, the San Luis Obispo City Council agreed to dismiss all tickets given that year to homeless residents for sleeping in their vehicles.
City Attorney Christine Dietrick responded by recommending the council adopt an ordinance under the health, safety and welfare section of the city’s municipal code, which would specifically allow police to immediately restart its program of ticketing sleeping homeless.
In addition, the police department created a task force to focus on the homeless. The police department then implemented a top ten offender list, which targets those most cited for more police oversight.
Jenkins and Rizzo are analyzing the case to determine its impact on San Luis Obispo’s enforcement practices.