Homeless File Civil Rights Lawsuit after ‘Heavy-Handed’ Stockton Blvd. Raid by Sacramento County Sheriff

By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO – In response to a “heavy-handed” raid at a homeless encampment along Stockton Boulevard earlier this month, Legal Services of Northern California filed a federal civil rights lawsuit late Wednesday on behalf of three residents of the encampment – including one whose arm was broken by a Sheriff’s deputy.

Named as defendants are the County of Sacramento, Sacramento County executive Nav Gill, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Dept., Sheriff Scott Jones, Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, SHRA executive director La Shelle Dozier and Sheriff’s Deputy “Lee.”

The intense standoff between dozens of advocates for the homeless and a militarized Sheriff’s force armed with chemical agents and rifles resulted in two arrests, although an overhead helicopter and deputies on the ground repeatedly warned of more arrests. The LSNC called the raid “heavy-handed.”

About 20 Sheriff’s Dept. vehicles and dozens of deputies participated in a nearly day-long assault of the encampment, located at the abandoned site of a former hotel and mobile home park for nine years, owned by SHRA. About 100 homeless occupied the encampment.

Plaintiffs Betty Rios, Lucille Mendez, Palmer Overstreet and the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee charge in the lawsuit that the raid violated their 8th Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment, and the County’s seizure and destruction of their personal belongings was an illegal search and seizure.

The suit asks for a permanent injunction, “enjoining and restraining Defendants from seizing and destroying the personal property of homeless individuals without providing proper notices, warrants, and hearing rights” (and) “Enforcing the County’s stated policy that ‘every person who camps/lodges or stores property on public land without the permission of the owner is committing a misdemeanor violation’ against homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter and sleep/rest/lay/camp on vacant undeveloped public lots.”

The suit also requests the defendants be prevented from “Enforcing any other statutes, ordinances, practices or policies that criminally punish or threaten to punish sleeping/resting/laying/camping on public property by those who are involuntarily in public space” and for “a declaration that the enjoined policies, practices, and conduct violate Plaintiffs’ Constitutional rights as follows: To be free from the seizure and destruction of personal property without proper notices, warrants, or hearing rights in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution” (and) “To be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th amendment to the U.S. Constitution for sleeping/resting/laying/camping on vacant public lots when individuals cannot otherwise obtain shelter.”

The five causes of action also calls for the return of the Plaintiffs’ property, compensatory damages, medical expenses for Rio and attorney’s fees.

The LSNC filing stated that the homeless campers were “threatened with arrest and physical force for resting and sleeping on an otherwise vacant, undeveloped public lot when they do not have homes or any other place to stay.”

“Policies and actions that criminalize homelessness are ineffective and violate basic human and constitutional rights,” said Laurance Lee, a LSNC staff attorney. “The County’s and Sheriff’s decision to deploy over 15 police vehicles, militarized police units, and a helicopter to displace people, and in the process breaking one resident’s arm and destroying property without due process, does not change the fact that people have nowhere else to go during the day and night.”

“The main thing these homeless sweeps take from us is our dignity. Everyone that lived at the Stockton Encampment was a family member,” said Plaintiff Betty Rios. “We’re not bad people; we’re just trying to survive and find a place to rest.”

Rios had to be taken by ambulance to a hospital after her arm was broken, allegedly by Deputy Lee, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit asserts that “On any given night, more than 3,000 people are homeless in Sacramento County,” that they must “compete” for “only 762 shelter beds in the County,” adding that there is a shortage of 57,000 rental units for the county’s lowest income residents.

The County, adds the claim by the homeless defendants, declared a “shelter crisis” late last year, and acknowledge “unsheltered people have nowhere to be during the day and night” (but) “persist in criminalizing those who must sleep and rest on public land.”

“This latest series of actions reinforce a reliance on criminalization, instead of any humane or effective approach. The County and Sheriff have displaced around 100 people from their home and community when shelters are full and Sacramento’s unhoused population has nowhere else to go,” said Niki Jones, board member of the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee.

Another accusation in the lawsuit, in addition to the homeless claim there are no places for them go to, is the destruction or confiscation of their already limited property, including tents, tarps, tools, sleeping and cooking gear.

Rios – who was displaced when SHRA demolished the mobile home park on the Stockton encampment site in 2010 – lost her tent/tarp that kept her safe in bad weather, clothes, medicine, breathing machine and a bone stimulator for her arm. She was not told how to retrieve her property.

She said she was injured when Deputy Lee grabbed her arm and exerted pressure on it.

Plaintiff Mendez also lost all her belongings, other than what she could quickly grab before deputies routed the residents May 1. She was kicked off property adjacent to the encampment a week or so later where she sleeping in a donated tent, and then a week after that deputies arrested her and took her to jail when they found her sleeping around the corner from the encampment.

“Living in shelters just isn’t an option for many because spaces are not available. If you can’t pay for your own place to live, you’re treated like a criminal,” said Mendez.

And plaintiff Palmer Overstreet, who doesn’t qualify for assistance and only earns income repairing bicycles, lost his tent, tools, bike parts, cooking equipment, and other personal items, according to the lawsuit. He maintains he didn’t personally receive notice of the raid, and now – without his bike tools – cannot earn even his meager living.

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