The civil rights anti-camping trial against the city of Sacramento: What you should know

A group of homeless Sacramentans have brought a civil rights trial against the city of Sacramento challenging a 1995 anti-camping ordinance used to remove homeless residents from public and private land. Here’s what you need to know:

This is an “equal protection” challenge.

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution says that no state can deny any person within its borders “the equal protection of the laws.” That is exactly what the homeless individuals suing the city of Sacramento are saying that police have done to them.

According to the plaintiffs, city police give anti-camping citations only to people experiencing homelessness, and not to anyone who is housed. Children camping at Fairytale Town, for instance, do not receive anti-camping citations from city police–even though their camping excursions are not permitted. Same goes for folks camping outside the Golden 1 Center for tickets to their favorite band. And for those camping at the zoo.

What’s the common denominator here? The plaintiffs will argue that the people who don’t get tickets have housing, while those who qualify as homeless do. If they can do that successfully, they may be able to put an end to the anti-camping ordinance.

The plaintiffs’ attorney has fought the anti-camping ordinance before.

Civil rights attorney Mark Merin (not to be confused with comedian Marc Maron) and colleague/wife Cathleen Williams took on the city of Sacramento in 2009 in a separate attempt to tear down the anti-camping ordinance.

Back then they argued that enforcement of the law violated homeless residents’ Eighth Amendment right to not suffer cruel and unusual punishment by the state. The logic was that, in a region without enough shelter beds to support the homeless community, the state should not be allowed to fine people trying to sleep outside.

It’s not a bad argument. In 2006, the ACLU won a right-to-rest case against the city of Los Angeles on those grounds. And since 2014, 75 percent of U.S. cases challenging laws restricting camping, sleeping in public and homeless camp evictions have been successful, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

But Merin and Williams didn’t win that case, and they can’t challenge the city on those grounds again. That’s why they’re bringing the current suit on the basis of the Equal Protection Clause.

This is a 10-day trial.

The judge said this case will be held Monday through Thursday (apparently he’s got a thing on Fridays), for 10 days of trial, through to about Wednesday, Nov. 8. No surprises there, as the witness list stands at 56. Multiple prospective jurors have been released due to responsibilities interfering with the lengthy hearing.

Merin finished his questioning of the juror box Tuesday, and the defense should be done by lunchtime Wednesday, after which the trial is set to begin.

Before they begin, however, the judge still must rule on three pretrial motions–one by Merin asking that it not be mentioned to the jury that the camping citations in the case were given on his property, and two bizarre requests by the city that they not discuss anti-camping enforcement or citations before the date of the 2009 incident in question.

The judge threw out three other pretrial motions by the city, including requests that no one in the trial make references to homelessness or the “plight of the homeless,” or refer to the “unconstitutionality” of the ordinance.

The judge is no stranger to high profile cases involving the city of Sacramento.

Remember when disgraced former mayor Kevin Johnson sued the Sacramento News & Review (and his own city) over a public records request for emails regarding his attempted coup of the National Conference of Black Mayors?

The judge on that case was Christopher E. Krueger, a soft-spoken, pensive guy with a knack for one-liners. He’s on the bench for this anti-camping ordinance case, too.

This likely has no bearing on the current case (particularly as it’s a trial by jury), but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg was against the anti-camping ordinance before he was for it.

When Sacramento’s anti-camping ordinance was passed in 1995, just one councilmember voted against it–Darrell Steinberg.

And while Steinberg ran his 2016 mayoral campaign on a platform of empathy to the homeless community, he’s been remarkably mum on the ordinance since taking office.

This civil rights trial would go away if Steinberg and his colleagues took Councilmember Allen Warren’s January 2017 suggestion to put a moratorium on the ordinance seriously.

But they won’t do that, even if there are just 700 year-round (and occupied) shelter beds in the region, and almost triple that number of folks on the streets, if we’re using the 2017 homeless count numbers. SN&R earlier this year found a Calfresh program that had listed over 13,300 homeless recipients in the county–that’s 19 times the number of year-round shelter beds.

By either metric, that’s more homeless folks than shelter amenities, and city leaders are left with the question: If people without homes can’t camp, where can they go?

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Dave Kempa
Dave Kempa is the founder and editor of VOICES: River City.