L.A. Law Prohibiting Residing in Cars is Void for Vagueness - U.S. Ninth Circuit
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L.A. Law Prohibiting Residing in Cars is Void for Vagueness

In 2010, Los Angeles officials gathered for a "Town Hall on Homelessness," a forum where Venice residents complained about the prevalence of homeless individuals sleeping in their cars. City officials and high-ranking LAPD officers attended, assured residents that they would reemphasize enforcement of an existing ordinance prohibiting living in one's car.

How? They formed a task force of twenty-one officers that were to use Section 85.02 to cite and arrest homeless people who were in violation of the statute. As part of this enforcement, officers ticketed or arrested a man waiting to volunteer at his church, a woman driving her RV through Venice, and a guy waiting out a rainstorm in his car, amongst others. None were caught sleeping in their vehicles, and some of them even had proof that they slept elsewhere, such as a local shelter.

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The Ordinance and Enforcement

Section 85.02 reads:

No person shall use a vehicle parked or standing upon any City street, or upon any parking lot owned by the City of Los Angeles and under the control of the City of Los Angeles or under control of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, as living quarters either overnight, day-by-day, or otherwise.

Those trained as part of the Venice Task Force were told to look for possessions normally found in a home, such as food, bedding, and clothing. Sleeping in one's car was not a prerequisite to violating the ordinance.

Previously, in 2008, a department memo instructed officers that arrest reports must "describe in detail observations ... that establish one of the following -- (i) overnight occupancy for more than one night or (ii) day-by-day occupancy of three or more days."

And in 2010, a different memo told officers to "adhere to the 'Four C's' philosophy: Commander's Intent, Constitutional Policing, Community Perspective, and Compassion."

Void for Vagueness

A statute may be void for vagueness when it either fails to provide notice of what conduct it prohibits or it encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. As the panel succinctly noted: "Section 85.02 fails under both standards."

"Plaintiffs are left guessing as to what behavior would subject them to citation and arrest by an officer," Judge Pregerson wrote. "Is it impermissible to eat food in a vehicle? Is it illegal to keep a sleeping bag? Canned food? Books? What about speaking on a cell phone? Or staying in the car to get out of the rain? These are all actions Plaintiffs were taking when arrested for violation of the ordinance, all of which are otherwise perfectly legal."

"And despite Plaintiffs' repeated attempts to comply with Section 85.02, there appears to be nothing they can do to avoid violating the statute short of discarding all of their possessions or their vehicles, or leaving Los Angeles entirely."

As for arbitrary enforcement, Judge Pregerson pointed out that "Section 85.02 is broad enough to cover any driver in Los Angeles who eats food or transports personal belongings in his or her vehicle. Yet it appears to be applied only to the homeless."

Pregerson also noted that the department's three different interpretations of the statue provide further support for a finding that it is unconstitutionally vague.

Impact

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer told The Wall Street Journal that he would not appeal the ruling, and would instead work to craft a revised ordinance instead. In Palo Alto, California, a recently passed similar ban, which has been on hold since earlier this year, is almost certainly invalidated by the decision as well.

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