Lawsuit filed over ban on sleeping in cars in San Luis Obispo

Ordinance criminalizes ‘innocent conduct' and should be declared unconstitutional, lawyers assert

acornejo@thetribunenews.comApril 10, 2012 

RVs and other vehicles line the street along Prado Road in San Luis Obispo.

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

A lawsuit challenging a San Luis Obispo ordinance that prohibits sleeping in vehicles on city streets has been filed on behalf of people who say they have been unfairly targeted by recent police enforcement.

The lawsuit, filed by attorneys Saro Rizzo and Stewart Jenkins in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Friday, alleges that the law is unconstitutional, vague and results in arbitrary enforcement.

“Basically, the ordinance criminalizes innocent conduct, sleeping and/or living when either is associated with a recreational vehicle,” the lawsuit argues.

The San Luis Obispo Police Department ramped up its enforcement against people living in their vehicles in mid-February after a number of businesses complained about growing nuisances such as trash strewn about, trespassing and the stench of urine and feces.

More than four dozen citations were issued, and a number of vehicles were tagged for violating a city ordinance that prohibits parking in the same place for more than 72 hours.

The lawsuit seeks to stop the city from enforcing the ordinance and have it declared unconstitutional.

City Attorney Christine Dietrick said that before the lawsuit was filed she had asked Jenkins to discuss his concerns before the City Council, which had been planning a public discussion on the issue.

The council decided to revisit how the ordinance is enforced following its approval last month of a test program that allows a few homeless people to park overnight at the Prado Day Center.

“It was our hope that we might be able to avoid the need for litigation through discussion and the public process,” said Dietrick, adding that she would seek direction from the council at tonight’s meeting on how to proceed.

Dietrick, who said she had not yet prepared a comprehensive analysis of the complaint, said she disagrees with the “assertion that the city’s ordinance seeks to penalize any particular group of people, either on the face of the ordinance or in its application.”

In addition to the city, the lawsuit names San Luis Obispo police Chief Steve Gesell as a defendant.

It asserts that the city must first post signs on public streets to give people sufficient notice of the city’s ban of people sleeping in their vehicles.

The lawsuit also claims that the ordinance is unconstitutional because it is not clear on the exact behavior it prohibits by not defining sleeping and living, it leaves “unbridled” discretion to police officers to issue citations, and it fails to clearly define what penalties will result.

“Scores of homeless citizens have not been cited with many of them on multiple occasions,” according to the lawsuit, adding that fines ranged from bail set at $229 for a first offense to $500.

The lawsuit asserts that sleeping and living are fundamental rights protected by the Constitution and that the law deprives those cited under it of those basic rights.

A recent survey by city and Prado Day Center staff determined that more than 60 people are living in their vehicles on city streets.

The council recently approved a test program to provide overnight parking at the center for five vehicles in which homeless people live.

The goal of the test program is to provide homeless people with a safe place to sleep while also connecting them with case management and eventual housing.

The council delayed a discussion that would have directed city staff to study ways to create stricter laws regulating overnight camping in vehicles, making enforcement easier for police officers.

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.

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