City of SLO ordered to pay $133,880 over homeless citations

acornejo@thetribunenews.comJanuary 17, 2013 

A line of cars on Prado Road, where many homeless gathered to live and sleep in their vehicles.

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

The city of San Luis Obispo was ordered Thursday by a Superior Court judge to pay $133,880 in legal fees and other associated costs to the two attorneys who sued the city over its treatment of homeless people living and sleeping in their vehicles.

The ruling brings the city’s cost to settle the lawsuit to more than $270,000.

The 14-page ruling issued by Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall says that attorneys Stewart Jenkins and Saro Rizzo acted in the public’s interest, resulting in the dismissal of 99 criminal citations for people living and sleeping in their vehicles on public streets.

Jenkins and Rizzo will receive $132,990 in attorneys’ fees — the equivalent of 443.3 hours at the rate of $300 per hour. They will also receive $890 in additional costs, such as filing fees.

The money will likely come from the general fund, said City Attorney Christine Dietrick. The decision can be appealed, she said, and she will ask the City Council next week if it wants to do that.

"Obviously, it is a disappointing result and an unfortunate use of resources that could be better spent toward addressing the issues and impacts of homelessness that the council has been discussing with its community," said Dietrick.

The lawsuit claimed a city law that prohibited people from sleeping in their vehicles was unconstitutional. That resulted in Crandall issuing a preliminary injunction that stopped the city from issuing tickets.

San Luis Obispo later reached a settlement with the Jenkins and Rizzo, who represented the San Luis Obispo Homeless Alliance, which ultimately changed those tickets from criminal misdemeanors to parking citations.

Crandall concluded in Thursday’s ruling that, “The Homeless Alliance’s victory is not trivial or de minimis, but rather involves issues of significant public importance.”

Crandall said the court was initially “surprised” by the $150,000 being sought in compensation by the attorneys but concluded that civil litigation is expensive.

The city paid more than $130,000 in legal fees to an Oakland law firm hired to defend the case and more than $10,000 in staff time.

The city fought paying the attorney fees by arguing that the lawsuit did not prevent the city from regulating sleeping and camping in vehicles on city streets.

Crandall noted that the lawsuit did make significant change including the posting of signs alerting people to the law, a different enforcement approach and the dismissal of the criminal cases that resulted from the old ordinance.

“We are very gratified with his ruling,” said Jenkins. “This stopped the city from going down a very dangerous road for all the citizens of the city. It is apparent that the city is now starting to refocus and look for positive solutions for people who do not have a roof over their heads.”

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

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