Technically, homeless men and women who have camped along Sacramento's rivers, on its sidewalks and inside its alleyways won a constitutional victory Tuesday in federal court.
But following a mixed verdict in a civil lawsuit that questioned the city's handling of property collected during police sweeps of homeless camps, it is unclear whether anything will change in the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between cops and the down and out.
"The jury found constitutional violations," attorney Mark Merin, who represented the homeless in an unusual class-action suit, declared after a clerk announced the verdict in Judge Morrison England's courtroom.
"The city is going to have to change what it's doing, and compensate people for the property that they lost."
Not so fast, Senior Deputy City Attorney Chance Trimm told reporters.
"This is new territory," Trimm said of the case. "We have to examine the verdict and look at our options."
City officials reserved comment late Tuesday, saying through staffers that they had yet to read the verdict.
The homeless plaintiffs who brought the case had hoped that the trial would lead to significant changes in the way the city enforces its ordinance against camping for longer than 24 hours in undesignated areas.
In their lawsuit, believed to be one of the first of its kind in the nation, the homeless claimed that city police stomped on their consitutional rights by grabbing their property during raids and throwing it away without giving them a chance to retrieve it.
After deliberating over five days, the jury found that the city failed to properly notify homeless people about how to retrieve their possessions, and to implement policies for handling that property.
But the panel rejected several other claims, including that the city had a "long-standing custom and practice" of unreasonably seizing and destroying the property of campers and of failing to give them reasonable notice of sweeps.
The trial, which began May 8, featured a parade of homeless and formerly homeless people, some of whom testified tearfully about losses of "survival gear," including tents and sleeping bags, as well as other personal items from family photographs to birth certificates and prescription medications.
The city's star witness, a police officer fondly known as "Batman" among homeless men and women, testified that he and his partners are obligated to enforce a city ordinance that bans camping in undesignated areas for more than 24 hours. They must regularly roust campers, he said, in response to complaints about trash, noise and other problems, and then clean up the messes left behind.
The officer, Mark Zoulas, said he did the best he could to notify campers about sweeps and to help them preserve their property during cleanups.
Zoulas said he went above and beyond his duties in talking to homeless people about their problems, transporting them to appointments and checking on their welfare.
Merin and his co-counsel, Cathleen Williams, urged the jury to reject the city's "good guy" defense.
Prior to the verdict, Merin called the case "history in the making," and later said he hoped it would spur the city to expedite efforts to establish a "Safeground" where homeless people could live with basic services and without police interference.
But Trimm said he expects no immediate changes in city policy on the homeless.
The lawsuit did not ask for specific damages, and it remains unclear exactly what remedy the plaintiffs will seek. Instead, attorneys from both sides, with the court's help, will try to sort out how the plaintiffs should be compensated for constitutional violations cited by the jury.
One possibility, said Merin, would be the appointment of a "special master" who would mediate the discussions.
"We have to work out some sort of a claims procedure," Merin said. "Nothing quite like this has ever been done before, so we're not sure which way it will go."