Appeals Court Overturns Los Angeles Ban on Living in Vehicles

The ruling called the decades-old LA law "cryptic" and discriminatory against homeless people

A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that a Los Angeles ban on using parked vehicles as "living quarters" is unconstitutional because it discriminates against homeless and poor people.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the 1983 law was vaguely written. The decision came in a case brought on behalf of four people who were cited and arrested in the Venice area by police who concluded the numerous belongings in their RVs and cars meant they were violating the law.

"All in all, this broad and cryptic statute criminalizes innocent behavior, making it impossible for citizens to know how to keep their conduct within the pale," according to the ruling. 

Specifically, the ruling mentioned a section of the law that bars people from using vehicles as "living quarters" both overnight and "day-by-day, or otherwise." The section  "provides inadequate notice of the unlawful conduct it proscribes, and opens the door to discriminatory enforcement against the homeless and the poor," according to the ruling.

The court cited the due process clause of the 14th Amendment in calling the statute unconstitutionally vague.

"Is it impermissible to eat food in a vehicle? Is it illegal to keep a sleeping bag? Canned food? Books? What about speaking on a cellphone? Or staying in the car to get out of the rain?"  Judge Harry Pregerson wrote for the panel. "These are all actions plaintiffs were taking when arrested for violation of the ordinance, all of which are otherwise perfectly legal."

The ruling by a three-judge appeals court panel overturned a lower court judge who had sided with the city.

The beach community of Venice became ground zero for the dispute over the ban in 2010 with the creation of the Venice Homelessness Task Force, a response to resident complaints. The four plaintiffs in the case were cited under the city ban after increased enforcement efforts, beginning in late 2010.

In one case, a man who lost his home and business was able to keep a few possessions in his car because he could not afford storage fees, according to court documents. After a series of citations, including one as he waited in the vehicle to volunteer at a church soup kitchen, the man was arrested in October 2010 as he was exiting his vehicle.

The vehicle, which contained boxes, computer equipment and other belongings at the time of the arrest, was impounded.

He was cited again in January 2011 as he sat in the car and talked on a cell phone, according to court documents. Dog food, salad boxes, water bottles, a radio and bags of clothes were found in the vehicle.

Another plaintiff suffered a head injury and could not work full time. The woman was giving a warning in 2010 as she was driving in Venice, according to the court, which said the plaintiffs could do little to avoid a violation, short of getting rid of their belongings and vehicles.

Carol Sobel, an attorney for the three men and one woman who sued to overturn the law, said the ban was exceptionally broad.

"The law itself is so broad, so unrestricted that there is no way you can follow it," Sobel told NBC4. "Not everybody is an alcoholic, drug addict, mentally ill, physically disabled. There are different people and people fall on hard times."

"We need to have a solution that address all of this and not put people in jail. When we put them in jail and criminalize them, they never get benefits because they're criminals," she said.

Los Angeles officials argued that the ban was enforced because it protected health and safety. City officials cited illegal dumping of trash and human waste on streets as major reasons for the enforcement effort.

"People living in their vehicles is one of the great unidentified homeless groups in this country -- formerly middle-class people who lost everything during the recession and are trying to maintain the appearance of stability so they can go to work," Sobel said.

The Los Angeles city attorney's office, which defended the law before the 9th Circuit, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC4.

Ted Chen contributed to this report.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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