U.S. Court Strikes Down Law Prohibiting People from Living in Vehicles in Los Angeles

The U.S. Court of Appeals sent a strong message across the nation that cities cannot attempt to make homelessness illegal by making it impossible for homeless people to survive by staying in their vehicles. Countless homeless people have been forced to use their vehicles as a shelter of last resort.

by Lynda Carson

An insidious law used by the cops in Los Angeles to harass and criminalize homeless people for sleeping in their vehicles, and using their vehicles as “living quarters,” was struck down on June 19 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court.

In the case Desertrain v. City of Los Angeles, the court sent a strong message all across the nation that cities cannot attempt to make homelessness illegal with egregious city laws that essentially make it impossible for homeless people to survive by staying in their vehicles.

For years, it has been a common practice for homeless people to use their vehicles as a form of shelter when necessary.

Whether it is due to a lack of money, or dire circumstances that leave them little choice but to sleep in their vehicles when the city they reside in does not offer them any other decent options, living out of a vehicle is an alternative to staying in overcrowded and unsafe homeless shelters, or sleeping on the sidewalks, or under the bushes, or on the brutal streets.

In 1983, the City of Los Angeles enacted Municipal Code Section 85.02 to attack its homeless population, making it illegal for people to use their vehicles as “living quarters” either overnight, day-by-day, or otherwise while the vehicle was parked on city streets, or in City-owned parking lots, and parking lots owned or under the control of the Los Angeles County of Beaches and Harbors.

During the week of September 23, 2010, Los Angeles officials created the Venice Homelessness Task Force, with 21 cops who had orders to use Section 85.02 to cite and arrest homeless people for using their automobiles as “living quarters.” The cops were also supposed to hand out information to people about providers of shelters and other social services.

A number of brave souls, including Cheyenne Desertrain, Steve Jacobs-Elstein, Bradford Echhart, Patricia Warivonchik, Leroy Butler, William Cagle, and Chris Taylor, fought back against the discriminatory anti-homeless laws of Los Angeles. As a result, the court struck down the law that made it illegal for homeless people to use their vehicles as “living quarters” in the City and County of Los Angeles.

Many gravely ill and disabled homeless people have been arrested in Los Angeles for using their vehicles as “living quarters” and had their vehicles impounded.

Those arrested under this law included one person who had congestive heart failure, and another that had epilepsy.

Another was an individual suffering from severe anxiety and depression after he lost his own legal temp business company that he had for almost ten years, and also lost his home during bad economic times.

Some of those arrested were found to have food in their vehicles. The cops used the presence of food as a pretext to accuse them of living in their vehicles, and then arrested them and impounded their cars.

The police were instructed to look for vehicles containing possessions normally found in a home, such as food, bedding, clothing, medicine, and basic necessities people need to survive.

The brave people who fought back against the insidious law argued that Section 85.02 is unconstitutionally vague on its face because it provides insufficient notice of the conduct it penalizes and promotes arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. The court agreed with them.

Across California, entire families have been forced to use their vehicles as a form of shelter because their cities do not offer enough decent housing options. Art by Christa Ochiogrosso

 

The court ruled that Section 85.02 provides inadequate notice of the unlawful conduct it proscribes, and opens the door to discriminatory enforcement against the homeless and the poor. Accordingly, the law violates the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as an unconstitutionally vague statute.

The court further believes that for many homeless people, 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.

The criminalization of the poor and the homeless in cities across the United States is cruel and inhumane. Other attacks on the poor and the homeless include the notorious sit/lie laws in San Francisco and the attempt to create such vicious laws in the City of Berkeley.

Sleeping bans exist in Santa Cruz, San Diego, and St. Petersburg, Florida, under the guise of “no camping laws.” Some cities prohibit sharing food with homeless people unless you have a permit, and many cities refuse to grant permits to feed poor and homeless people in their communities. In Orlando, Florida, people from Food Not Bombs have been arrested and sent to jail for feeding the poor and hungry, and Food Not Bombs volunteers have been harassed and arrested in San Francisco and other cities in past years.

Laws against panhandling are another attack on the poor in many cities, and homeless people are being subjected to several other forms of cruel and inhumane treatment in many cities across the nation.

Lynda Carson may be reached at tenantsrule@yahoo.com

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