The stupid ordinance

a Sacramento attorney

A 95-year-old woman who sits down alone in a playground area to watch kids and reflect on her youth could spend six months in jail for doing so under Sacramento City Code section 12.72.060(I). Believe it or not, it’s on the books, and some bunglers have defended it as good law.

The city ordinance barring adults who are not supervising kids from “enter[ing] … playground area[s]” is unconstitutionally vague. To be so, the language of an ordinance must be so unclear that a reasonable person would not know whether his or her conduct was illegal.

Is a park bench outside of a sandbox within the entrance of a playground area or not? How about a drinking fountain 50 feet away? Is the rose garden at McKinley Park “in the area of” the children’s slide? Is the duck pond? Answers will vary among reasonable people, so the city’s law violates due process. What is clear is that the police and district attorney don’t care. Sacramento cops recently cited three adults for violating the ordinance.

Cops who violate laws that are clearly established and thereby deprive people of federal rights subject themselves to personal liability, for which taxpayers usually pay. “Vagueness law” is clearly established by the U.S. Supreme Court. So, when the police enforced an unconstitutionally vague law, the people (victims) cited in the park suffered deprivation of liberty, and the cops violated the law. If the victims sue the cops, let’s hope the victims win. If we paid our City Council to ratify the unconstitutional law, then, in addition to paying the cops’ legal bills (as usual), shouldn’t we pay for the harm to the law’s victims?

The acquitting jury in the trial of the three ostensibly had a greater understanding of due process than the police, prosecutors and judge. After the trial, the jury questioned the vague law in a letter to the judge. For that, the jury should be commended. The judge should have tossed the case from the start. That the district attorney even sought a trial shows that the motive to win once again outweighed the goal to seek justice: another waste of our money.