A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Los Angeles Municipal Code section prohibiting the use of a vehicle “as living quarters either overnight, day-by-day or otherwise” is unconstitutionally vague under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court determined that the language used provides insufficient notice of the “conduct it penalizes” and, therefore, “promotes arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”
If the decision becomes final, only the specific Los Angeles ordinance prohibiting sleeping or living in cars, which “fails to sufficiently identify prohibited behavior,” is prohibited as unconstitutionally vague. Presumably a better drafted law might survive judicial scrutiny.
In its decision in Desertrain v. City of Los Angeles, the judges found fault with the fact that no definition of “living quarters” was included and there were no clear time limitations because of the use of the word “otherwise.” In addition, the court held that section 85.02 encourages “arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.” The court also noted that the provisions appeared designed to allow “selective enforcement against the homeless.”
The lawsuit was initiated in late 2010 by the Venice Homeless Task Force, a group of officers established by the Los Angeles Police Department to combat the problems associated with homelessness. Four homeless individuals sued the City alleging numerous constitutional and statutory violations, though they did not specifically allege vagueness. Subsequently, the homeless plaintiffs raised the concept of vagueness in a motion for summary judgment. That motion was denied by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Los Angeles in 2011, and the plaintiffs successfully appealed.
According to the UK Guardian, many local governments across the United States are responding to skyrocketing levels of inequality and the now decades-long crisis of homelessness among the very poor by passing laws making it a crime to sleep in a parked car:
“This happened most recently in Palo Alto, in California’s Silicon Valley, where new billionaires are seemingly minted every month–and where 92% of homeless people lack shelter of any kind. Dozens of cities have passed similar anti-homeless laws. The largest of them is Los Angeles, the longtime unofficial “homeless capital of America.””
The litigants’ success in overturning the Los Angeles ordinance will encourage legal attacks on cities across America with similar prohibitions.