Judge orders police to stop citing homeless for sleeping in cars

Preliminary injunction prohibits San Luis Obispo from enforcing ordinance

acornejo@thetribunenews.comJuly 3, 2012 

San Luis Obispo police must stop issuing citations to homeless people sleeping in their vehicles on city streets, a Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday.

The preliminary injunction issued by Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall is the result of a lawsuit filed by attorneys Stewart Jenkins and Saro Rizzo alleging that the law prohibiting people from sleeping in their vehicles is unconstitutional, vague and results in arbitrary enforcement.

The ruling also questioned the enforcement methods used by police who issued the citations, saying the homeless appear to have been unfairly targeted.

“The city’s overall enforcement choices and methods cause this court grave disquietude,” Crandall wrote in the ruling. He added that police appeared to be singling out the poor and homeless for “harsher treatment.”

Jenkins said he was “ecstatic” at the ruling. “This is perfect for Independence Day, and it is the Constitution at its best,” Jenkins said. “All of these people are going to be freed from being hunted.”

In a separate court case, Jenkins is trying to retroactively rescind fines imposed based on dozens of tickets already issued to homeless people sleeping in their cars.

San Luis Obispo police Chief Steve Gesell backed his officers’ enforcement strategies. “The judge used some very strong words that aren’t indicative of the professionalism and patience our officers have demonstrated throughout the last six months,” Gesell said. “I don’t see it as fair, and it is certainly not accurate.”

City Attorney Christine Dietrick said she finds the ruling to be unfounded. In a written statement, she called the ruling “extraordinary and unprecedented” by inferring that the City Council “did not mean what it said,” when adopting the ordinance that prohibits people from sleeping in vehicles. The city, she said, disagrees with the legal conclusions and factual assertions used in the ruling. The City Council will be asked in closed session Tuesday how to legally proceed, which may mean asking the court to reconsider or vacate the ruling.

Crandall’s preliminary injunction states that the law being used by the city does not apply to public streets, and it orders police to stop issuing citations until a full court hearing can be held.

“The city does not believe it should be legally compelled to allow unsafe and unsanitary residential occupancies anywhere in the city, including on the public streets,” said Dietrick in a statement. “So, while the city is currently prohibited from enforcing its illegal occupancy provision on the streets, all laws governing related illegal behaviors often associated with that activity will continue to be enforced in the best interests of community health and safety.”

The ordinance overturned Tuesday was the only method police had for dealing with a rising number of people sleeping in vehicles on public streets — particularly on Prado Road.

Police stepped up enforcement of that ordinance in February after business owners complained about nuisances such as trash, assaults, trespassing and the stench of urine and feces.

Officers began knocking on vehicle doors and windows during the night, rousing people from slumber and issuing tickets when they answered the door.

Crandall, in the ruling, was critical of those enforcement methods.

“These methods include, but are not limited to, the use of late-night police forays needlessly utilizing flashing lights, blaring horns, intimidation, threats and other scare tactics,” Crandall wrote. “These methods are apparently designed not only to force legal compliance, but also to intimidate plaintiffs into leaving the city altogether.”

Gesell said he found the judge’s commentary to be a one-sided reflection of the plaintiffs’ perspective.

He said that since 2002, citations issued for violating the ordinance have ranged from eight to 25 per year. So far this year, more than 50 have been issued.

Those numbers spiked, Gesell said, because of the growing number of people sleeping in their vehicles on public streets. “It got to a point of critical mass on Prado Road,” he said.

Robert Watts, who had his trailer impounded while parked on Prado Road, said the ruling was “finally justice for the people out there on the streets.”

A case management conference is set for July 24 to discuss the case.

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