Homeless plaintiff’s RV seized by SLO police
April 26, 2012
By KAREN VELIE
One of the litigants in a lawsuit that claims the San Luis Obispo police department is discriminating against homeless people who sleep in their cars is now sleeping outdoors after police seized his recreational vehicle on Monday.
A lawsuit filed by attorneys Saro Rizzo and Stew Jenkins on April 6, accuses the city of San Luis Obispo and the chief of police of discrimination, harassment and the criminalization of homeless people. The attorneys are asking the court to order the city to stop enforcing a city ordinance that prohibits sleeping in vehicles and to pay financial damages and costs on behalf of their clients, several homeless residents of the city and the SLO Homeless Alliance.
“It is troubling that the signatory on the complaint for the entire SLO Homeless Alliance has had his home seized and towed,” Jenkins said.
Robert Watts, the spokesman for the alliance, was spending Monday afternoon applying for jobs when he received a call from a fellow member of the homeless community telling him that police were having his motor home towed away. No notices to move or tickets had been placed on the vehicle prior to the towing, Watts said.
He then rode his bike to Prado Road and was informed by officers that his RV had been towed because of an expired registration. Watts then headed to a tow yard on Tank Farm Road where he found his RV. He then locked himself and his girlfriend Crystal Vernoy inside the seized vehicle.
After police officers ordered them to open the door, they left the vehicle with Vernoy aggressively telling officers what she thought of their seizure. Officers responded by cuffing Vernoy and setting her in the dirt by the side of the road. Vernoy suffers from birth defects and is currently awaiting approval for hip surgery.
Before they moved the vehicle, officers allowed Watts to take several of his belongings including a tent, bicycles and a dog from the vehicle.
“That was our last ditch effort to have an existence other than sleeping in a river bed,” Watts said. “I’ve paid for the registration, I just needed to get the smog check done.”
Police Capt. Chris Staley said the vehicle had not been registered since 2006 and that the department was not retaliating against Watts.
“Mr. Watts’ vehicle was a subject of a call for service into the San Luis Obispo Police Department dispatch center,” Staley said. “Employees of the city’s water treatment plant called to complain that they had found dirty diapers, needles and other garbage on the other side of the fence where Watts’ vehicle was parked, and had been parked for some time.”
Watts said someone stole the tags off the back of his RV and that it is currently registered. In addition, Watts and Vernoy said the diapers and trash did not come from them.
“Why would I be throwing diapers over the fence when I don’t even have a child,” Vernoy said.
Several witnesses, including members of the legal community, said they saw a police cruiser turn onto Prado Road facing the Watts as others helped them gather their belongings while witnesses stood vigil looking back at the police. After a short standoff, the cruiser loudly broke rubber and screached all the way down Prado Road, witnesses said.
Last night, Watts and Vernoy slept under the Gazebo at the Grace Church in San Luis Obispo. They are spending the afternoon under a shelter at Mitchell Park in an ill attempt to stay dry.
“It is cold out here with this rain,” Watts said. “All of our belongings are wet.”
On Tuesday, attorneys Jenkins and Rizzo filed a motion for an injunction to bar police from ticketing people for sleeping or living in their vehicles until a judge rules on their lawsuit.
“Plaintiffs have suffered from the city’s illegal actions against them and will continue to suffer if a preliminary injunction is not granted,” the motion says.