Court Strikes Down Los Angeles Law Banning Living in Vehicles


I thought the homeless were Venice Beach's official city mascot
Credit: Malingering / photo on flickr

Here's what a law passed by the City of Los Angeles in 1983 says:

No person shall use a vehicle parked or standing upon any City street, or upon any parking lot owned by the City of Los Angeles and under the control of the City of Los Angeles or under control of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, as living quarters either overnight, day-by-day, or otherwise.

While the wording of the law may seem simple (regardless of how one might feel about it), a trio of circuit judges from the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday that the description of what behavior violates the law is so unclear that it was being used by police to (surprise!) harass homeless people who believed they were actually complying with the law.

The ruling (readable here) centers on the behavior of police in Venice Beach, a place with quite a few homeless people. Following complaints in 2010 about all the homeless folks around, police started cracking down, using this 1983 law as the tool. But as Judge Harry Pregerson noted in the ruling, the police were using just the existence of personal property or food in a vehicle as evidence that the law was being violated and even threatening homeless people who were sleeping in their vehicles on private property, like church parking lots, with the owner's permission. One homeless plaintiff in the lawsuit had to resort to sleeping on a public sidewalk (which is legal) rather than in his car in order to comply with the law. He nevertheless was arrested and his vehicle impounded when police found him sitting in his car to avoid the rain. One woman was pulled over and cited for violating the law while actually driving her vehicle through Venice.

The judges ruled that the statute is a due process disaster because it is unconstitutionally vague and fails to provide adequate notice of the conduct it criminalizes. The ruling notes:

Plaintiffs are left guessing as to what behavior would subject them to citation and arrest by an officer. 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 cell phone? Or staying in the car to get out of the rain? These are all actions Plaintiffs were taking when arrested for violation of the ordinance, all of which were otherwise perfectly legal. And despite Plaintiffs' repeated attempts to comply with Section 85.02, there appears to be nothing they can do to avoid violating the statute short of discarding all their belongings or their vehicles, or leaving Los Angeles entirely.

Oh hey, I think the judge stumbled across the real goal of the statute at the end there. In conclusion, the judge ruled that the city was using the law specifically to harass homeless people for engaging in many of the same behaviors in their vehicles undertaken by many other people in Los Angeles each day, and the law violates the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The city attorney for Los Angeles told the Associated Press the city would not be appealing the ruling and will instead craft a new ordinance "that respects both the rights and needs of homeless individuals and protects the quality of life in our neighborhoods."