Historic Homeless Trial Begins in Sacramento

Lawyers Seek to Prove ‘No-Camping’ Law Not Applied Equally, and City Unconstitutionally Is Creating ‘Thousands’ of Homeless Criminals

By Cres Vellucci

Sometimes, some people are more guilty than others – especially if they’re homeless, charged civil rights attorney Mark Merin this week in Sacramento Superior Court during what could be a landmark civil rights trial on homeless issues after nearly nine years in the making.

Eight plaintiffs – most of them homeless, and including two that have since died – originally sued the City in 2009 to challenge the constitutionality of the City’s 22-year-old anti-camping ordinance. The suit initially failed, but wound its way through appeals court, and now has landed back in Sacramento for trial.

Plaintiffs allege that the ordinance “is and has been selectively enforced against homeless people in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 7(a) of the California Constitution,” and are asking for declaratory relief to end the practice.

The suit asserts that the City’s action in enforcement of the anti-camping is “selective in its intent and effect, such that it was applied to homeless people who were living outside and not applied as harshly against other groups or individuals who camped within the City limits.”

Merin argued this week that people regularly break the camping ordinance when they camp out to get a good retail deal at a mall, or tickets at Golden 1 Center, or other community events. But they
are not arrested, booked and jailed. The homeless are – by the thousands.

In short, Merin, for his clients, said the City has created “thousands of criminals” because of the law, and virtually all of them are homeless. There are an estimated 3,000 or more homeless in the city of Sacramento alone. The City has issued thousands of citations under the ordinance.

“The issue is whether the City applied the ordinance equally to all persons. They did not and do not,” said Merin in pretrial motions this week, which largely dealt with the City attempting to limit the case’s reach – the City even asked the court to, in effect, ban the word “unconstitutional” as it applied to testimony. The court denied the City’s request as it did most other City motions designed to limit Merin’s case.

“People must talk about social issues when thousands of people lack housing and shelter…it is relevant to injunctive relief,” said Merin, noting the ordinance drives the homeless “underground” with the increasing number of citations issued by the City.

The ordinance – which may surprise many who are not homeless – bans “camping on all public property and on all private property, except by friends and/or family of the property owner, and then for only one consecutive night, unless the City manager issues a permit in connection with a special event,” according to the plaintiff’s court filings.

So, when “Aunt Jane and Uncle Willie” visit with their RV, they may well be violating the ordinance if they stay in your yard more than 24 hours.

The original plaintiffs include persons who were homeless – called “Safe Ground Pioneers.” And in 2009, they camped on private land – much like “Aunt Jane and Uncle Willie” – and were arrested, despite having permission of the property owner, under the City’s no campaign ordinance. “Aunt Jane and Uncle Willie” wouldn’t be arrested  – they aren’t homeless.

Merin said he intends, over the course of what is expected to be two to three weeks of trial, to prove an “intentional and pervasive pattern” by the City to unconstitutionally apply the no camping ordinance against the homeless and not everyone else.

When asked by the court if the arrests for camping were “civil disobedience,” Merin responded that the “homeless are forced to live outside the law” because of the unequal application of the ordinance.

The National Lawyers Guild, Sacramento Chapter, witnessed nearly 100 arrests of the homeless for “camping” nearly two years ago in a one-month campaign at City Hall. Several people, not homeless, were largely ignored by police.

The trial begins at 9 a.m. daily at Sacramento Superior Court, Dept. 1.

Come see the Vanguard Event – “In Search of Gideon” – which highlights some of the key work performed by the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office…

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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