Jury sides with Sacramento in homeless camping case

Homeless camps grow along shores of American River

Maury Hatch, a fishing guide, shows us a view, by boat, of homeless camps along the lower American River.
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Maury Hatch, a fishing guide, shows us a view, by boat, of homeless camps along the lower American River.

The city of Sacramento did not treat homeless people unfairly in its enforcement of a longtime ordinance banning outdoor camping for extended periods in public and private spaces, a Superior Court jury decided Thursday.

Homeless plaintiffs hoped to prove that the city violated their constitutional right to equal protection under the law by selectively enforcing the ordinance against people forced to live outdoors. Police looked the other way, they argued, when others slept outside for family camping or to be the first in line to land the latest electronic gadget at Best Buy.

After less than a day of deliberations, the jury voted 9-3 in favor of the defendants. The panel sided with the city’s argument that it uses the ordinance to protect the public and act on complaints against campers, and had to cite and arrest homeless people who refused to leave illegal encampments.

The case began more than eight years ago, after about two dozen people camped in a vacant lot at C and 12th streets. The action followed years of efforts to establish a safe and legal place where homeless people could live without fear of being cited or arrested.

After several complaints about noise, odors and trash, police warned the campers that they would be arrested if they stayed on the property. When they refused to leave, officers testified, police cited campers and took them to jail. The campers dispersed only after former Mayor Kevin Johnson promised he would work with them toward their goals. The search for a “Safe Ground” continues today, as the city struggles to find shelter and services for an estimated 3,000 people who sleep outdoors on any given night.

Sacramento’s new mayor, Darrell Steinberg, has made tackling homelessness a centerpiece of his administration.

Juror Steve Stevens, who works at a local gambling hall, said Thursday following the court verdict that a majority of panelists agreed that the ordinance, in effect for 22 years, “is not working” to curb Sacramento’s growing homelessness crisis. “I think all of the jurors felt that the current situation is deplorable,” Stevens said. “But that’s not what we were deciding in this case.”

He said the comparison between Best Buy campers and homeless men and women and their encampments was a stretch for jurors. “The situations are very different,” he said.

In the case of the shoppers, he said, “It seemed clear they wouldn’t be there for an extended period. There was no harm to the public or threat to health and safety.”

Testimony during the past two weeks offered a glimpse into what it is like to be homeless in Sacramento and the city’s efforts to deal with unsheltered people, many of whom have addiction and mental health issues. Many homeless and formerly homeless people attended the proceedings, storing their belongings in a designated place outside of the courthouse.

Chance Trimm, senior deputy city attorney, said following the verdict that he was “pleased that there was no finding that the city engaged in any conduct unfair to the homeless.”

Trimm said he hoped the verdict would bring an end to a string of lawsuits questioning the city’s handling of homeless people and their property. “It’s been a long road on this one. I can’t imagine it going any further,” he said.

But civil rights lawyer Mark Merin, who owned the property where the campers made their stand and represented them in court, vowed to fight on. He said he sees a legal path forward.

“The tide has been turning regarding these types of cases in the federal courts,” with several rulings around the country in favor of homeless plaintiffs, he said. “We will be back, attacking the constitutionality of the ordinance itself.”

Merin’s wife and co-counsel in the case, Cathleen Williams, said she was encouraged that “three people on the jury saw the merit of our position.”

“Certainly,” she said, “the case highlighted the absolute cruelty of the city’s practice of chasing people from place to place, forcing them to be in the street day after day and night after night.”

North Sacramento residents pelted Mayor Darrell Steinberg and two City Council members in October 2017 over their plans for homeless shelters in North Sacramento, which they said already is overburdened with social services agencies.

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert

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