A federal appeals court has struck down a Los Angeles law against the homeless living in personal cars on Venice streets as unconstitutionally vague.
The 1983 law that bars use of streets or public parking lots as living quarters doesn’t tell people clearly what it penalizes and it “promotes arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement,” according to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a decision Thursday.
Laws cannot be written so that people have to speculate about what they mean and what is prohibited, according to Judge Harry Pregerson.
This law “offers no guidance as to what conduct it prohibits, inducing precisely this type of impermissible speculation and uncertainty,” he wrote.
In 2010, the city began stepped up enforcement of the 30-year-old law after receiving complaints that homeless people were living in their cars on local streets in Venice.
The city said they were not out to punish homelessness generally, but wanted to stop the illegal dumping of trash and human waste on city streets. The city considered it a danger to public health.
The Los Angeles police set up a Venice homelessness task force with 21 officers to cite and arrest homeless people using their cars as bedrooms.
A group of people arrested for violation of the law sued, challenging its constitutionality.
Among them was Steve Jacobs-Elstein, who lost his decade-old legal temp company in the 2007 economic downturn. He was able to keep his small SUV, pay for insurance and gas with the $200 monthly General Relief check. He kept a few possessions in the car because he could not afford storage fees.
Police warned him in 2009 that if he slept in his car at night on the streets he would be arrested. He began sleeping at motel parking lots and soon got permission froma Methodist Church to sleep in his car in their parking lot so long as he left by 8 a.m. each day.
Weeks later, while waiting in his car for the First Baptist church to open for meals, he was again warned by officers it was illegal to live in his car. He was later cited and arrested and his car impounded. Jacobs-Elstein was in custody seven hours and borrowed money to get his car out of impoundment. He had no criminal record before that arrest.
His story was typical of the other plaintiffs in the case.
“For many homeless persons, their automobile may be their last major possession – the means by which they can look for work and seek social services,” Pregerson said. “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,” he said.
Case: Desertrain v. City of Los Angeles, No. 11-56957