Right to rest holdout

Boise ruling against unlawful camping ordinance has reverberated across northwest

The city of Sacramento seems intent on going down with the ship when it comes to its anti-camping ordinance—and it could create an environment where getting a ticket for sleeping outside comes down to a homeless person’s luck that day.

On September 4, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an anti-camping ordinance in the city of Boise is unconstitutional to enforce when no other adequate sleeping options, such as shelter beds, are available. The three-judge panel’s decision in Robert Martin v. The City of Boise immediately forced local governments across the court’s northwest region to reassess the laws they created to push homelessness out of public view.

The city of Stockton quickly ceased enforcing its homeless anti-camping ordinance, while Sacramento County officials ordered their park rangers to stop citing homeless campers along the American River Parkway, which came as an unpleasant surprise to county supervisors.

“As soon as I found out about the ruling, I suggested our board meet to discuss its implications, especially for my constituents who rightfully demand a clean and safe Parkway,” Supervisor Phil Serna, whose district includes the parkway, said in a statement. “I have many questions, including why County Counsel advised that park rangers not enforce the illegal camping ordinance without notifying or coordinating with board members.”

In her own statement, Susan Peters, chair of the Board of Supervisors, called the Ninth Circuit ruling “devastating news.”

From January through August, park rangers issued 1,834 citations for unlawful camping under the county ordinance, and 224 citations under the city’s. While park rangers aren’t, for the moment, ticketing homeless campers, some of their law enforcement counterparts will continue to do so. The city of Boise appealed last month’s ruling to have it reheard before the entire Ninth Circuit. Sacramento City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood said her office has decided against rescinding enforcement of its anti-camping ordinance until the outcome of that appeal is known.

“The City of Sacramento’s unlawful-camping ordinance remains legally valid and in effect and any enforcement activity will continue to be in compliance with federal, state and local law,” Alcala Wood wrote in an email to SN&R.

That stance isn’t unusual for a city that has fought vigorously to defend its ability to ticket homeless people who congregate outside. Following an eight-year legal journey, a Sacramento County jury last year upheld the city’s anti-camping ordinance over a civil challenge arguing that it was only enforced against homeless people. Mark Merin, a local civil rights attorney who was behind that challenge, said the city’s refusal to let go of its ordinance was characteristic.

“The city has been playing a ridiculous game for years,” he contended.

Merin added that keeping the ordinance amounted to little more than a posture, since he doubted any judge would hear an unlawful camping case now that the Ninth Circuit has weighed in.

“What they’re doing is saying they still want to intimidate homeless people by handing them a citation,” Merin said of the city. “It’s a continuation of this campaign to drive homeless people underground. It’s inhumane.”

According to booking logs, city police made one camping arrest in the past week. On September 21, police cited and released 42-year-old Steven Francis Shaw on charges of unlawful camping and storing his belongings on private property without the owner’s consent. He was arrested at 2040 Railroad Drive, which is the street address for the city’s homeless triage shelter.

The Ninth Circuit’s ruling follows nonbinding opinions by the federal departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development that enforcing anti-camping laws when there isn’t adequate shelter is cruel and unusual.

“This is the one with teeth,” Merin said of the Ninth Circuit decision.

During a September 18 press conference in front of City Hall to discuss the findings of a UC Berkeley Law School review of property business improvement districts, attorney Cathleen Williams, Merin’s wife, agreed.

“This is a new day, a new year,” Williams said at the press conference. “This Boise case is a powerful weapon that we should drive home to City Council. This is their second unconstitutional ordinance that is designed to protect particularly this rapidly developing downtown with its luxury apartments.”