It won’t solve any municipality’s housing crisis, but homeless people in California are now free to sleep in their vehicles after a federal court decided that Los Angeles’ 31-year-old ban on the practice is unconstitutional.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled Thursday that the law was vague and unclear about what behavior it was prohibiting. Judge Harry Pregerson wrote that the law “criminalizes innocent behavior” and cited the example of plaintiff Chris Taylor, a homeless man who slept at a shelter (and could prove it) but was arrested for sitting in his car during a rain storm.
A second plaintiff, Steve Jacobs-Elstein, was arrested after receiving permission from a church to use its parking lot to sleep in his car. He became homeless after losing his 10-year-old legal temp business in 2007 during the Great Recession. Jacobs-Elstein, who suffers from severe anxiety and depression, was on a waiting list for public housing and volunteered at the church where he was arrested.
Plaintiff Patricia Warivonchik, an epileptic who is unable to work full-time, lived in Venice for 34 years and sells ceramic art part-time. She lives in her RV and parks it at a Santa Monica church. She didn’t get arrest, but was stopped by L.A. police for a bad turn signal on her way to an art fair and warned she would get arrested if they caught her in the city again.
Plaintiff William Cagle, a Venice resident since 1979 and homeless since 1993, suffers from congestive heart failure. He managed to maintain a small van, but did not sleep in it. Officers said it didn’t matter whether he slept in it or not and arrested him. Ironically, it is not against the law to sleep on the ground.
“There appears to be nothing they can do to avoid violating the statute short of discarding all of their possessions or their vehicles, or leaving Los Angeles entirely,” Pregerson wrote of the homeless.
The law, which is similar to one passed but not yet implemented in Palo Alto, said a vehicle could not be used “as living quarters either overnight, day-to-day or otherwise.” The “day-to-day” and “otherwise” seemed a tad broad to the judges, but seemed just fine for the 21-officer L.A. task force formed in 2010 to sweep homeless vehicle dwellers out of the Venice beach area.
The officers were told that an individual need not be sleeping or have slept in their vehicle to be in violation of the law.
The plaintiffs sued the city in 2011 and lost in District Court. But the appellate court found that the law’s vagueness promoted “arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement” that targets the homeless for behavior that many non homeless people exhibit—like eating in their car or storing their stuff in it.
City Attorney Mike Feuer said he would not appeal the ruling, but would work with city officials to craft a new, more narrow ordinance “that respects the rights and needs of homeless individuals.”
Judge Pregerson offered the city some guidance on that account:
“For many homeless person, their automobile may be their last major possession—the means by which they can look for work and seek social services. The City of Los Angeles has many options at its disposal to alleviate the plight and suffering of its homeless citizens. Selectively preventing the homeless and the poor from using their vehicles for activities many other citizens also conduct in their cars should not be one of those options.”