Homeless Union Tells California Attorney General Sacramento County DA ‘Overstepped,’ Encouraged City of Sacramento to Violate Federal Court Order by Exposing Unhoused to Super Heat

Possessions of a homeless person on Capital Mall Drive in Sacramento on Saturday, September 11, 2021.(Photo by Robert J Hansen)

By Crescenzo Vellucci

The Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

SACRAMENTO, CA –  The Sacramento Homeless Union has informed California Attorney General Rob Bonta Sacramento County’s District Attorney has been “encouraging” the city of Sacramento to break a federal court order that banned sweeping homeless camps because of expected super-heated temperatures that could cause “death” to those unhoused.

For instance, temperatures have hovered near 100 degrees – the city says 90 degrees is hot – for the past few days and are expected to top 102-107 degrees most of this coming week.

And, said the union to the attorney general to California’s top cop, Sacramento County District Attorney Thien Ho is playing a major role in encouraging the city to violate the court order – the union subsequently last week asked a federal judge to find the city in contempt of the court’s Aug. 3 order when several homeless camps were swept in apparently violation of the federal court order.

In a brief note to AG Bonta, Homeless Union Chief Counsel Anthony Prince said, “We wanted to make you aware of the situation described in the message as we believe Mr. Ho has dangerously overstepped his authority as a County District Attorney and is misusing his office to gain a political advantage by demanding that the City act in such a manner tantamount to willful disobedience by the City of Sacramento of a Temporary Restraining Order issued by District Judge Troy L. Nunley (Aug. 3).”

Prince added, “We are in the process of further researching this matter and intend to file a formal complaint with the State Bar against Mr. Ho and will follow up this message with a formal communication to your office regarding this matter.”

Characterizing Ho’s actions to Bonta as “increasingly strident…rhetoric and threats coming from the Sacramento District Attorney to pressure the City of Sacramento to resume currently-enjoined enforcement of its anti-camping ordinances, this is an urgent matter for the Sacramento Homeless Union and its 2,700 members.”

Prince also copied the AG on a letter to Ho’s office last week, where Ho allegedly cited “a number of “proposals” accompanied by a formal notice of a pending criminal charge against the City of Sacramento for allegedly failing to enforce various ordinances against homeless encampments.”

The union then added, “we want to advise the DA and the public that D.A. Ho’s letter appears to call upon the City of Sacramento to take actions that may violate a federal court injunction issued on August 3, 2023 by District Court Judge Troy L. Nunley prohibiting the clearing of homeless encampments that will remain in effect, if not extended, until August 17, 2023.  

“Mr. Ho is demanding that the City ‘clear within the next 30 days the sixteen encampments within the city identified by the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office.’ The letter also ‘proposes’ that the City ‘implement citywide the same ordinance used to prohibit camping at City Hall between 6 am and 9 pm.’”

Prince added, “Although there are other problematic ‘proposals’ in his (Ho’s) letter, these two alone, if implemented by the City of Sacramento during the pendency of the above-referenced TRO would constitute a violation of Judge Nunley’s Order.

“For the Sacramento County District Attorney to ‘encourage’ the City of Sacramento to act in disregard of a federal court order is, to us, deeply troubling and may constitute a gross abuse of his authority, among other things.”

In the filing with the federal court for a contempt order against the city, Prince wrote, “Plaintiffs believe that the City must be deterred” from violating the order, arguing, “If the City will not or cannot insure compliance at the building that houses its entire administration –City Hall — how can the Court and the Plaintiffs be assured that it is insuring obedience anywhere else in Sacramento?”

The union said one day after the temporary restraining order went into effect, Aug. 4, the union received a report “City Hall campers had been cleared from the Plaza (and) confirmed that contractors employed as Security Guards for City Hall removed the homeless this morning.”

Prince wrote in his appeal to the judge for the contempt order, “The injunction expressly applies to the Security Guards and does not provide any exceptions…It is the City’s obligation to communicate the Court’s order to all employees, agents, contractors, etc.” and the city said the incident “should not occur again while the TRO is in place.”

But, just a few days later, cites Prince, on the morning of Aug. 7, the union was again informed “police and security guards had dispersed the City Hall campers. Before Union officers could arrive at City Hall, City Attorney Grace Pak sent a message to Attorney Prince admitting the City’s actions, but, again providing an excuse.”

And, Aug. 8, Prince said a television news crew told him “she and her crew were at City Hall and had watched while a person believed to be a City contractor began power washing the area where approximately 15 campers had been sleeping (and) the power washer operator provided no warning or opportunity to the campers to move before he began spraying the high-pressure water.”

Prince told the court the news crew “observed the campers grabbing what they could and fleeing. As of the time the news crew left, there were no campers at City Hall.”

Prince noted that last year, after another court-mandated prohibition to prevent the city from rousting homeless camps, “Plaintiffs informed the Court that the City had violated its injunction with regard to two homeless persons who police had told to leave the shaded safety of an overpass.”

“Although the Court declined to impose sanctions, noting that Plaintiffs had not requested any specific sanctions, it nonetheless included in its Order of September 2, 2022 ‘If the Court learns the City has violated this Order, the Court will not hesitate to issue sanctions in the future,’” added the union, urging the court to sanction the city this time, and pay attorney fees.

“One year later, with a virtually identical Order in place and triple digits returning to Sacramento in a matter of days, Plaintiffs believe that the City must be deterred from all but the most rigid, thorough compliance on its own part and that of those under its control,” the union wrote in a declaration to the court.

Prince added in his pleading that while “There is no direct evidence that the City acted deliberately in violating the Order…there is a thin line between acting deliberately and acting in disregard of clear orders, failing to promptly and effectively communicating to and overseeing obedience to the Order on the part of the Police Department, private security and all other agents, etc.”

“The Union specifically advised the City and following the first violation…the City represented that they had taken steps to insure compliance by their agents. Yet, the same excuse ‘an oversight,’ ‘misunderstanding’ etc. was used not once, but twice and continues to be used in public statements to the media which has widely reported the story,” said the union.

Prince asserted, “As a result of the City’s misconduct, the number of campers at City Hall has dramatically shrunken and the Union, in its efforts to inform the displaced campers of their rights under the Order, has learned that many are now scared to return. Instead of being the substantial protection of the shade provided at City Hall Plaza, they are in the hot sun, at the increased risk of harm that the Injunction was intended to prevent.”

When U.S. District Court Judge Nunley issued the TRO a week ago, he said the union has a “likelihood of success on a Fourteenth Amendment state-created danger claim…Plaintiffs have presented sufficient evidence, at this stage, to demonstrate the City’s clearing of encampments constitutes “affirmative conduct” that places unhoused individuals at an increased risk of the ‘known and obvious danger’ of exposure to extreme heat.”

Nunley also concluded “Plaintiffs’ evidence forecasting excessive heat for the upcoming weeks and detailing the risks of heat-related deaths and illnesses is sufficient to show that irreparable harm will result in the absence of injunctive relief,” adding the city’s interested is “far outweighed by Plaintiffs’ interest in the health and welfare of unhoused individuals.”

The original filing by the union noted that when last year “brought record-setting excessive heat to the City and County of Sacramento, this Court issued two successive preliminary injunctions which…directed the City of Sacramento to cease its policy and practice of displacing unsheltered persons from areas where shade provided by trees and other vegetation as well as under freeway overpasses, bridges, buildings, etc. offered a modicum of protection from the sun and excessive heat.”

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