After aggressively clearing homeless camps on the American River Parkway this year, Sacramento County park rangers have suddenly stopped issuing citations altogether after a federal court ruling this month.
The decision in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals may also force Sacramento police to reconsider their practice of ticketing homeless people who sleep outdoors.
The court ruled in a case brought by homeless plaintiffs in Boise, Idaho, that cities cannot punish homeless people for sleeping outside if no shelter beds are available to them. Doing so, said the Ninth Circuit, would be a form of cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.
The Ninth Circuit is based in San Francisco and includes the western portion of the country, including all of California.
The ruling, issued earlier this month, is being hailed by homeless advocates who have long challenged cities that have ordinances banning camping in public and private spaces for extended periods of time. They have said such ordinances are targeted at homeless people and are discriminatory.
“I think this means we will not see camping citations issued in the future,” said Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin, who frequently has represented homeless clients. “If they are issued, I don’t think we’ll see the District Attorney prosecuting them.”
Both the city and the county of Sacramento have ordinances that bar prolonged camping without a permit.
Since January, county park rangers have issued 1,834 citations for unlawful camping under the county’s ordinance, and another 224 for the same violation under a city regulation, said a county spokesperson.
The county has stopped enforcing anti-camping regulations in light of the court ruling and is “currently evaluating enforcement options under existing laws and regulations,” said spokeswoman Kim Nava.
Sgt. Vance Chandler, a spokesman for the Sacramento Police Department, said he did not have accurate numbers for anti-camping citations issued by officers this year. He said the city is aware of the recent court case and is “discussing our plan moving forward.”
Merin wasn’t confident that the ruling would stop officers from moving homeless people from their sleeping spots. In the absence of enforcing anti-camping measures, he said the city and county could find other avenues, such as citing them for illegally possessing a shopping cart or illegal dumping.
Sacramento’s ordinances, which make it a misdemeanor to camp in undesignated areas for more than one night at a time, have spurred prolonged legal fights. Most recently, a Sacramento Superior Court jury last year decided that the city did not treat transients unfairly by enforcing its longtime ordinance prohibiting outdoor camping. Homeless plaintiffs had hoped to prove that the city was violating their constitutional right to equal protection under the law.
The Boise federal panel held that “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise that they had no choice in the matter.”
Judge Marsha Berzon, in her opinion, wrote that Boise’s homeless population is growing. The city has three shelters, which routinely are full or have restrictions on who can get a bed, Berzon wrote.
Previous rulings have concluded that “human beings are biologically compelled to rest, whether by sitting, lying or sleeping,” she said. The state cannot punish conduct that “is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless.”
Mike Journee, a spokesman for the city of Boise, said the city intends to appeal the ruling. In recent years, he said, police have not issued citations to homeless people when shelters are full.
“We are arguing that we do have room in our shelters, and if we don’t we do not issue citations,” Journee said.
Homeless shelters in Sacramento typically are full on any given night, with long waiting lists, managers of the facilities have said.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg has vowed to steer thousands of people off the street in the coming years by improving access to services that can lead them to stable lives. The city’s “triage” shelter provides beds and services to up to 200 people each night and aims to help them obtain permanent housing. County programs also are moving people off of streets and parkways and into stable housing.
But Merin said elected officials “still are showing no willingness to tackle the problem in a serious way.”
Merin and others advocate a “Safe Ground,” where homeless people can live and police themselves in a community with basic services and free from law enforcement interference.
“This is the clear path forward,” he said. “Let’s focus on it.”