Sacramento’s homeless community found some – but not much – comfort Friday from a state appeals court on a constitutional challenge to the city’s camping ordinance.
Of all the issues raised by homeless people to show that the city’s ordinance is unconstitutional, the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento found that only one issue – equal protection – poses a potentially legitimate question. The rest were cast aside as lacking in one way or another.
A three-justice panel of the appellate court ruled the city’s 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 U.S. and California constitutions.
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There will now be further proceedings in the lower court on that question.
“We need not, and do not, determine whether (the homeless) can ultimately prevail,” the panel noted.
The 33-page opinion was authored by Associate Justice Louis Mauro, who was joined by Presiding Justice Vance W. Raye and Associate Justice Harry E. Hull Jr. It is a published opinion, and thus can be cited as precedent.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne W. L. Chang previously threw the entire case out, but gave the homeless plaintiffs an opportunity to file an amended complaint. Instead, they chose to appeal.
The ordinance states that it is intended “to maintain streets, parks and other public and private areas within the city in a clean, sanitary and accessible condition and to adequately protect the health, safety and public welfare of the community” as a whole.
A violation of the city’s camping ordinance is a misdemeanor. There is an exception for camping on private residential property by friends or family of the property owner, not to exceed one night. In addition, the city manager may issue a camping permit for special events on public and private property.
“The ordinance was adopted to target the homeless and the city enforces it only against the homeless,” plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Merin said Friday. Once the dispute over inconsistent enforcement is resolved in Sacramento Superior Court, Merin said, he will ask the appeals court to revisit the matter and, failing there, will petition the California Supreme Court for review.
Sacramento’s top lawyer expressed satisfaction with the court’s ruling.
“We are pleased the court has upheld the constitutionality of the city’s ordinance,” said Sacramento City Attorney James Sanchez. “We will have to return to the trial court for evidence to be presented as to how the city enforces the ordinance. But we do believe that our enforcement of the ordinance was consistent with the law, and we believe that the evidence ultimately before the trial court will demonstrate that.”
Merin said Friday he still wants to “open up private property to homeless people who have been sleeping in alleys and streets.” Toward that end in 2009, dozens of homeless people created an impromptu “tent city” on a vacant lot near 12th and C streets with the permission of Merin, the property owner. During a three-week period, police raided the encampment, seizing tents, sleeping bags and other property, and detaining and citing the campers.
The camp disbanded after city leaders, including Mayor Kevin Johnson, pledged to find a permanent solution, including the possibility of establishing a legal “safe ground” campsite with basic services. That solution never materialized.
“Even when a law is nondiscriminatory on its face, equal protection is violated if the law is applied in a manner that discriminates against a particular group,” the 3rd District’s panel said, citing a 1973 opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices said they must accept the allegation of selective enforcement at face value and let the lower court decide, based on the evidence, whether the claim is valid.
They ruled that in the city’s opposition to the equal protection claim, its reliance on a 1995 California Supreme Court opinion was misplaced. The three justices declared that the procedural circumstances and the factual scenarios of that litigation, involving the city of Santa Ana, and the Sacramento case are in no way similar.
Call The Bee’s Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.