For the second time in two years, a federal appeals court has struck down a key enforcement tool in Los Angeles' efforts to deal with burgeoning homelessness, declaring a ban on living in vehicles an invitation to discriminate against the poor.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided unanimously Thursday that a city ordinance prohibiting people from living in vehicles was unconstitutionally vague. That ruling followed a 9th Circuit decision in 2012 that prevented Los Angeles from confiscating and destroying possessions that homeless people leave temporarily on sidewalks.
Both ordinances had been enforced, along with other policies, to help the city cope with a homeless population now estimated at 36,000 to 54,000.
"The City of Los Angeles has many options at its disposal to alleviate the plight and suffering of its homeless citizens," wrote Judge Harry Pregerson, who was appointed by President Carter. "Selectively preventing the homeless and the poor from using their vehicles for activities many other citizens also conduct in their cars should not be one of those options."
Calling the Los Angeles law "broad and cryptic," the court said the ban "criminalizes innocent behavior, making it impossible for citizens to know how to keep their conduct within the pale."
City Atty. Mike Feuer said he would not appeal the ruling, but would work with other city figures to write a new ordinance that "respects both the rights and needs of homeless individuals and protects the quality of life in our neighborhoods."
"We need to make a break from the past … and commit ourselves to grappling with the issues that create homelessness in the first place," Feuer said in a statement.
Experts on homelessness said the court decisions showed the city's policies had failed.
"The city has adopted a negative, anti-homeless agenda to make the problem less visible, as opposed to making homeless people homes," said retired UCLA law professor Gary Blasi, who has studied Los Angeles' policies.
Mark Ryavec, head of the Venice Stakeholders Assn., said that the decision reflected the experiences of judges "who don't have to live with the problem," and that it should be appealed.
"It leaves people who are mentally ill, criminally inclined or lethal on your doorstep and removes any possibility the police can do anything about it," said Ryavec, who said he led a neighborhood effort that cleared Venice streets of 250 cars and recreational vehicles in which homeless people were living.
The numbers are starting to creep back up, he said.
Advocates for the homeless said Thursday's ruling would probably stem a rise in similar laws banning vehicle habitation, in California and elsewhere. They said at least two other California cities — El Cajon and Union City — had also adopted bans. The Palo Alto City Council voted in December to hold off enforcement of a car-camping ban that was to have taken effect in March.
Unlike cities that bar overnight parking or sleeping in vehicles, Los Angeles prohibited people from using a vehicle parked on a city street or in a parking lot owned by the city or the county Department of Beaches and Harbors as "living quarters" — both overnight and "day-by-day, or otherwise."
The 9th Circuit said the law failed to define "living quarters" or specify what "otherwise" meant.
Enacted in 1983, the ordinance attracted attention in 2010 when a special Los Angeles police task force began citing and arresting homeless people in Venice in response to citizen complaints. A group of homeless car dwellers sued the city in 2011, but lost in federal district court. The homeless appealed.
The plaintiffs included an artist who took to sleeping on the sidewalk after police said he could not sleep in his car. Police arrested the artist for sitting in his car to get protection from the rain and had his car impounded, the court said.
In overturning the lower court, the 9th Circuit panel said the city's ban had resulted in "arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement."
The law "is broad enough to cover any driver in Los Angeles who eats food or transports personal belongings in his or her vehicle" and can be violated even if somebody is not found sleeping in a car or if the vehicle is not filled with personal possessions, the court said.
"It appears to be applied only to the homeless," Pregerson wrote.
Despite attempts by homeless people to comply with the law, "there appears to be nothing they can do to avoid violating the statute short of discarding all of their possessions or their vehicles, or leaving Los Angeles," the court said.
Los Angeles had argued that the law was being enforced to protect health and safety, not to target the homeless. City officials have said police were trying to stop the illegal dumping of trash and human waste on city streets and to protect those who were living in cars with garbage and pets.
But the court said different police officers interpreted the law in various ways, making it "incompatible with the concept of an evenhanded administration of the law to the poor and to the rich that is fundamental to a democratic society."
Pregerson was joined by Judges Marsha S. Berzon and Morgan Christen, who were appointed by Presidents Clinton and Obama, respectively.
Police and business leaders have complained that the 2012 ruling prohibiting police from taking the belongings of homeless people has hamstrung their efforts to clean up skid row and other homeless encampments.
Tristia Bauman, senior attorney at the Washington, D.C.-based National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said the ruling would affect any city in California with a vague ban similar to Los Angeles'.
"We're seeing a dramatic uptick in these type of laws," Bauman said. "Cities have a goal of reducing visible homelessness rather than taking constructive actions."
Civil rights attorney Carol Sobel, who represented the homeless people, said it was past time for the city to try new strategies.
"Honestly," Sobel said, "these policies are bad."