Rancho Cordova police officers routinely and unlawfully detain, arrest, harass, threaten and assault homeless people in an effort to drive them from the city, alleges a civil complaint filed this week in Sacramento Superior Court.
The action, filed by Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin on behalf of a man and a woman living on the streets of Rancho Cordova, asks for a temporary restraining order to stop police from engaging in practices that the complaint says represent violations of constitutional rights.
Rancho Cordova Police Chief Michael Goold said he is “perplexed” by the lawsuit, insisting that his officers are only responding to complaints about loitering, panhandling and other issues associated with homeless people and do not harass them or detain them without cause.
“We’re responding to what our citizens want,” he said. “We’re not doing anything willy-nilly.”
The couple named in the lawsuit, Christian J. Frazier and Kasandra A. Emslander, charge that they are routinely, and without good cause, stopped and detained by police officers and ordered to leave the city. The plaintiffs estimate that at least 100 others are subject to similar treatment by police. The complaint asks the court to certify the matter as a class action, allowing others to join the lawsuit, and for unspecified damages.
Frazier “is frequently asked by the police officers, ‘Why are you in my city?’ and told that ‘You need to leave my city now,’ ” according to the complaint, which states that the plaintiff has no criminal record. Emslander, who suffers from epilepsy and has seizures, routinely gets detained by police officers when she holds a sign requesting food and hygiene products from passers-by, the complaint says, even though she has permission to solicit donations in two locations of the city.
The police actions, the complaint says, violate various federal and state laws, including constitutional protections against unlawful detention and arrest and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
“Some cities try to legislate homeless people out of town,” said Merin. “Others use police to destroy homeless people’s property. Others, like Rancho Cordova, instruct their police to make life so difficult for homeless residents that they will want to leave the area.”
Goold, the police chief, said his officers “are all for helping the homeless,” and the city has a wide range of services including transitional housing programs and winter shelter. But he said the city is struggling to deal with an increasing number of homeless people, many from outside the area, who beg for money in violation of Rancho Cordova’s recently enacted ordinance against aggressive panhandling.
“They’ll get money from someone who means well, then they’ll go to the liquor store, buy 40 ounces, get drunk” and pass out or become disorderly, said Goold.
“We don’t target the homeless, but we do respond to complaints and enforce the ordinance.”
Merin is a longtime advocate for homeless people in the Sacramento area. Most recently he has challenged the constitutionality of Sacramento’s camping ordinance, which he has argued is enforced only against homeless people.
Last month, a federal judicial panel ruled that the camping ordinance, on its face, is constitutional. The ordinance states that it is unlawful for anyone to camp or use “camp paraphernalia” on any public or private property, with some exceptions.
The court left open only the possibility that the ordinance is not evenly enforced, to the detriment of the homeless. That would be a violation of equal protection provisions of the United States and California constitutions.
Further legal proceedings will focus on that question.