Sacramento homeless case goes to jury

Published: Thursday, May. 19, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Jun. 6, 2011 - 9:59 am

Everybody has a right to personal property. It says so in the U.S. Constitution.

But some homeless people in Sacramento, acting as a class, are in federal court claiming that on sweeps of their camps, city police and others stomped all over the Constitution by grabbing their property and throwing it away without giving them a chance to later retrieve it.

Not so, says the city. In fact, Sacramento "has a long history of assisting homeless individuals in various ways," according to court papers filed by the City Attorney's Office.

Before the jury of four women and four men began deliberating Wednesday – the sixth day of trial – a parade of homeless people had taken the witness stand and told of losing their personal property – from tents, stoves, sleeping bags and other camping gear to important documents and mementos – during sweeps and cleanups of campsites.

When the city's turn came, it played its ace – Officer Mark Zoulas, 54. He's the most senior officer in the Sacramento Police Department with more than 30 years on the job, the last 14 doing nothing except trying to keep the homeless problem at bay.

There are no policies, regulations, guidelines or general orders on how to deal with this population – up to 2,400 on any given night. Zoulas – soft-spoken, tall and husky, his gray hair in a crew cut – deals with each situation using his own judgment.

"He wrote the book," Senior Deputy City Attorney Chance Trimm told the jury Wednesday in his closing arguments.

Zoulas testified this week that when he accepted the assignment in 1997 he asked what was expected of him and was told, "Try to end homelessness in Sacramento."

"That's it?" he asked. "Yes," came the reply.

In the broadest sense, Zoulas said, his modus operandi is "to keep them circulating because people don't like to see them. Once they've moved on, we have to clean up after them. To maintain credibility, what they leave behind has to be taken and disposed of because that's what I warn them will happen."

He encounters abandoned campsites every day that have to be cleaned, he said.

For the most part, Zoulas and the two officers he's had as partners have been regarded by society's outcasts as benefactors. He's known affectionately in the homeless community as "Batman."

Zoulas rarely makes arrests, even though the homeless live outdoors, in violation of a city ordinance. "Citations or jail are not going to do one thing to improve my situation or theirs," he testified.

On the other hand, he described how he and his partners give rides to court or a doctor, buy food and hand out Christmas gifts. They lend a buck here and there – and get it back, now and then. They gain trust. They keep order.

"I know all the places and all the people by their nicknames," Zoulas testified.

If one of them gets arrested, "I'm willing to swing by a storage locker or a friend's or relative's with their stuff," he said.

He said he gives the homeless notice when the complaints about a camp have become more than the city is able to withstand. He used to suggest locations where they might go unnoticed for a while, but he no longer does that because, sooner or later, they will be rousted from that site.

"I can't do that anymore," he said.

Trimm told the jury "my dander is up" over the tenor of the presentation by attorneys for the homeless, Cathleen Williams and Mark Merin.

"The people on trial in this case are the three officers" – Zoulas, his first partner, Officer Michael Cooper, and his partner since 2009, Officer George Chargin, Trimm said. "They have been repeatedly honored for their work with the homeless. Now, they are accused of being dishonest and covering up."

In their closing arguments Wednesday, Williams and Merin urged the jury not to buy the city's "good guys" defense. As in cross-examination, they hammered away on the theme that, despite empathy and good deeds, the three are part of a system that has robbed the homeless of their constitutional rights to reasonable taking of property, due process and equal protection.

"We don't contest the city could take property if need be to clean up a site or enforce its ordinance," Williams insisted. "But it's unreasonable to destroy it. The proper procedure was to store it and give notice as to where and when it could be claimed.

"The rule is not 'move it or lose it.' That's not a fair rule, not a good rule."

Zoulas "was given no direction, no briefing, no guidance. Instead, he was given an impossible assignment," she said. For this, she added, the city must be held accountable.

The jury will resume deliberations today.

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