Activist threatens DOJ complaint if Sacramento council doesn't rescind anti-camping ordinance

Justice Department filing could force cities to reconsider their policies

Emboldened by the Department of Justice's recent legal brief that says it's unconstitutional to penalize homeless people for sleeping in public, a semi-local activist issued an ultimatum to the Sacramento City Council last week.

West Sacramento resident Andy Conn, of the Crunch Nestlé Alliance and Occupy Monsanto movements, demanded that the council rescind its anti-camping ordinance or he'd be first in line to file a complaint with the federal agency. The DOJ has said that “punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human” is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Conn complained at the August 25 meeting that police enforce the city's anti-camping ordinance selectively. This is partly true. While the city ordinance in question does make it illegal to camp or “use camp paraphernalia” on both public and private property, it exempts recreational camping.

Still, the statement of interest that the DOJ filed earlier this month in federal district court in Idaho will likely force cities like Sacramento to reconsider their policies. The Justice Department sides with a Los Angeles court opinion, since vacated, that deemed it unconstitutional to enforce an anti-camping ordinance on nights when there wasn't “sufficient” shelter space to accommodate the city's homeless residents.

As for what “sufficient” means, the DOJ filing appears to take a narrow view: “If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless,” it states.

Suzanne Hastings said that's her “constant fear,” as someone living on a fixed income. She asked the council to consider an amnesty area for its homeless residents. The alternative, she suggested, was “like outlawing insulin, and then throwing someone in jail for being diabetic.”