SANTA CRUZ >> The city of Santa Cruz is undertaking legal review of how a federal appeals court decision may impact local laws against public sleeping that may be considered “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment.
Community activist Steve Pleich, who was among those who protested outside of city hall in recent years for its ban on overnight camping laws, hailed the Sept. 4 U.S. District Court of Appeals 9th District ruling against the city of Boise, Idaho’s no-camping laws, said he hopes the ruling raises awareness locally about the realities of homelessness.
The ruling upholds that for individuals with no other place to sleep but outside, governments cannot criminalize the behavior on public property “on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”
“This decision by the 9th Circuit has sent a message to the city of Santa Cruz,” Pleich said. “You have to change the narrative around homelessness, you have to get people to understand that they can’t criminalize people because of status of homelessness and that sleeping and sleeping in public spaces is just a consequence of being homeless. That narrative is a long way from being changed in Santa Cruz.”
City Attorney Tony Condotti said Monday that, in his initial reading of the ruling, that it appears to have an impact on the circumstances under which Santa Cruz’s camping ordinance can be enforced and that he expects to offer a revised city law for Santa Cruz City Council approval in coming weeks. In the meantime, Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills said that he has directed his officers to pull back on illegal camping citations while the local law is under review and no shelter beds are available.
While Mills took a public stance last year de-emphasizing the city’s decades-old ban on overnight camping in public spaces, his department has continued to issue illegal camping citations. In a recent report to the Santa Cruz Public Safety Committee, Mills said 66 such citations were handed out between January and June.
The ruling came as no great surprise to Mills, he said, as the “courts have been telegraphing this for several years.”
Local police department protocol allowed someone who has been issued an illegal camping citation to have their ticket thrown out by the City Attorney’s Office if area homeless shelters are full at the time and that person was on a waiting list there, Mills said. Similarly, some cases coming before the Santa Cruz County Superior Court were dismissed when the defendant brought a letter from the shelter saying they were full, Mills said.
“The reality is very few of the tickets, and I don’t have the numbers on those, that were written were actually ending up in fines. Nothing was happening until there were five tickets to go to collections,” Mills said Monday. “In my opinion, this really won’t affect us a whole lot.”
Mayor David Terrazas said it remains to be seen exactly how the court ruling will apply to Santa Cruz’s ordinances, but that the city remains committed “to managing the access and capacity of regional shelter services” and will continue to do so with local jurisdictions’ help.
Terrazas, along with a majority of the City Council at the time, voted in 2016 against an effort by former Councilman Don Lane, backed by then-Councilman Micah Posner, to remove the word “sleep” from the city’s camping laws. He said Monday that he felt the proposal did not get at the “root cause” of homelessness.
“With this issue, there’s no easy solutions and I think it would be a mistake to think that letting people sleep in the parks and on our sidewalks is a humane way to move forward in addressing the homeless crisis,” Terrazas said.
Even while illegal camping tickets have plummeted under Mills’ watch, other types of citations that may be associated with homelessness have shot up in the city in the past year. The city’s no-camping law, as with the federal case, relates to overnight sleeping on public land. In contrast, trespassing citations, a charge which applies to private property — in places such as downtown doorways — and not public land, have increased by 88 percent in the first six months of the year, compared to the same period last year. A change in the city’s camping laws would not affect enforcement of such charges as aggressive panhandling, littering, public urination and defecation, illegal dumping or being in parks after dark, Mills said.
“I honestly think that when it comes to behavioral issues, that we have a responsibility to make sure that there’s some level of social control in our community and quality of life,” Mills said. “Just because someone is homeless does not give them the excuse or reason to live any way they want in a public society. But I agree with the courts, that sleep — it’s a human need. That’s why we’ve viewed it this way.”
Pleich, who serves as a member of the community Chief’s Advisory Committee, said that the ruling underscores the sense that criminalizing homelessness is a violation of people’s constitutional rights. By turning to other laws than public camping bans to enforce against homelessness, Pleich said, the city could still put itself at risk for litigation.
Fellow activist on homeless issues Robert Norse predicted that the city would find ways around the court ruling, noting that shelter options are still insufficient in the Santa Cruz area.
“Actually, civil rights for the homeless and shelter services are two separate issues,” Norse wrote in an email to the Sentinel. “It’s particularly egregious when city governments add insult to injury by fining or jailing the poor outside and simultaneously forcing them to be outside by denying them shelter.”
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