Motions sickness: City’s attorney doesn’t want jury to hear about homelessness during trial about homelessness

Challenge to anti-camping law sparks heated debate during pretrial hearing

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the October 26, 2016, issue.

Inside a first-floor courtroom, tucked behind restrooms and past an idle vending machine, one of the most anticipated cases in Sacramento history was off to an unusual start. After all, it’s not everyday that one of the lead attorneys might have to testify.

The case itself concerns whether a city of Sacramento ordinance that prohibits camping is discriminatorily applied to homeless individuals with no other place to go.

This particular legal challenge originated in the fall of 2009, when attorney Mark Merin allowed nearly a dozen homeless individuals to set up camp on a private piece of property he owned downtown. Police came and rousted the campers multiple times over a course of weeks, resulting in citations and arrests.

Merin is now representing the surviving members of the short-lived camp in a lawsuit that has the potential to either upend or codify a local law that the U.S. Department of Justice has criticized.

During an October 23 procedural hearing, Merin argued why opposing counsel shouldn’t be permitted to call him to the stand as a material witness. “It’s potentially prejudicial,” he told Sacramento Superior Court Judge Christopher E. Krueger. “Whether it’s for the good or the bad, frankly, I don’t know. I would assume if the jury loves me … that’s gonna benefit the plaintiffs’ case.”

A sleepy grin formed on the judge’s face. “You don’t want that overwhelming love directed in your direction,” Krueger deadpanned.

The playful back and forth belied the stakes.

The attorney hired to defend City Hall leveled a half-dozen motions intended to dilute the plaintiffs’ case before it ever went before a jury. Among them, the attorney, Chance Trimm, wants to question Merin about his motives for allowing the camp. Trimm also submitted motions asking the court to prevent testimony about “the plight of the homeless,” the number of homeless residents, the vulnerabilities they face, and the services or resources available to them.

“Those aren’t legal issues. Those are social issues,” Trimm remarked.

Merin retorted that the lack of shelter space for a growing homeless population is central to his argument that the city penalizes homeless people for having no other place to go.

“This is not just something that dropped out of the blue,” Merin said. “We have more and more homeless people living on the street who are unable to be accommodated anywhere. They necessarily are forced onto public or private property. And the only thing the city is doing to address that situation is to use law enforcement to drive them underground. Now, that’s argument. But it comes from the facts that are going to be presented.”

The judge took these and other motions under advisement.

One motion both sides did agree to involved dismissing two of the plaintiffs from the lawsuit. The reason? The two homeless men died.

“Unfortunately, it’s a rather common experience for persons who are living outside,” Merin noted.