Sacramento’s city attorney targets our most vulnerable residents

Last fall, Sacramento City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood signed the city onto a Supreme Court brief seeking to criminalize people who are unhoused. And she’s not stopping there; in case after case, Wood’s office seeks to attack the poor. 

Just weeks ago, as Sacramento residents united against police brutality, the city attorney instead focused on–of all things–trying to block a vote on rent control and closing a ‘Safe Ground’ camp meant to provide secure, communal space for our unhoused neighbors

Is this the representation Sacramento needs?

Wood made that answer clear in a recent Supreme Court brief. At issue was a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Martin v. City of Boise, establishing that cities may not criminalize the mere status of being homeless if they don’t have enough housing options to get people off the streets. In the United States, people are not supposed to be criminalized just because they are poor. 

Wood nonetheless added Sacramento to a table-pounding brief seeking Supreme Court review of that decision. 

This brief insisted that, without being able to criminally charge people living in parks and streets, the city would be unable to prevent fires and floods due to homeless camps in the way (yes, really), and would have no way to keep people from using the river to relieve themselves (perhaps because Sacramento leaders just can’t stomach the humane option of building bathrooms and homes). 

As the case progressed, President Donald Trump said that he wanted to confine homeless people in camps as criminals. So did the sheriff of Bakersfield.

Even the Sacramento Bee questioned why the city wanted to arrest the poor. We all dodged a bullet when the brief couldn’t even find the four Supreme Court votes needed for review. It is truly saying something when justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch apparently find Wood’s arguments too extreme.

Her office has stayed the course since. Its website proclaims that the City Attorney follows the discredited “broken windows theory” of policing, which has led to over-enforcement of minor violations against communities of color across the country. It heralds a “Justice for Neighbors” broken windows effort, bringing the full force of the city to bear against people who don’t, say, maintain their yards properly.

When Wood’s office isn’t criminalizing poor people, it’s criminalizing protesters. 

After the killing of George Floyd, as the city protested, the city council reacted to, yes, broken windows, with a sweeping general curfew ordinance–doubtless drafted by Wood’s office. The ordinance functionally gave the police the green light to brutalize and arrest protesters out after dark. 

A competent city attorney might have warned the council that this would lead to costly lawsuits, as it has. Did Wood? There’s no sign of that.

It gets worse. The general curfew was a sweeping restraint on constitutionally protected speech–and all other activities. Such curfews can only be legally justified in acute public emergencies, which the protests weren’t. A competent city attorney would have warned that civil rights lawsuits were incoming.  

It’s no surprise that the ACLU immediately threatened suit, forcing the Council into an embarrassing public retreat. (Editor’s note: VOICES: River City was one of a number of complainants in the potential suit against the city.)

Did Wood point out to her clients that they were burning both political and legal capital as they tried to criminalize ordinary people? Doubtful. Instead, she’s still threatening to prosecute at least some people arrested under the curfew, despite more legal demand letters. 

Doubling down on bad legal theories to hurt the public and the poor seems to be par for the course. Most recently, Wood has swung the city’s legal firepower against a civil rights lawyer seeking to let people camp on his own property. 

The city is also suing to remove a rent control initiative from the ballot, in part because, according to the complaint, a rent control board would, in their words, steal “legislative power from the council.” A public battered by police brutality and coronavirus might think Wood has more to worry about than a few tents on some guy’s land, or city council’s precious legislative power. So much for “justice for neighbors.”

In short, our city attorney is trying to block rent controls that will keep people in homes, is working to close safe grounds for people who already have lost homes, and would have loved to let Brett Kavanaugh and Donald Trump criminalize that very population.

Want to protest about it? Hope you don’t mind a curfew and rubber bullets to the face, courtesy of the City Attorney. 

But, then, she just really hates broken windows.

Sacramento, we can do better. We can start by replacing our City Attorney with someone who wants to represent the public, not plate glass.

Craig Segall is an attorney, a resident of Midtown, and wrote this essay in his personal capacity. Full disclosure: He was a law clerk to Judge Marsha S. Berzon, author of the Boise opinion, but was in that role years prior to that case and had no role in that decision.


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Craig Segall
Craig Segall
Craig Segall is an attorney and a resident of Midtown.