A federal appeals court Thursday struck down Los Angeles' ban on homeless people living in vehicles, declaring that the law "opens the door to discriminatory enforcement" against the poor.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9thCircuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the city's ordinance, which bans people from living in cars or recreational vehicles on city streets or in parking lots, is unconstitutionally vague.
"This broad and cryptic statute criminalizes innocent behavior, making it impossible for citizens to know how to keep their conduct within the pale," Judge Harry Pregerson wrote for the court.
Unlike other cities, which ban overnight parking or sleeping in vehicles, Los Angeles' law prohibits using cars as "living quarters" both overnight and "day-by-day, or otherwise."
The 1983 law came under fire in 2010 when a special Los Angeles police task force began aggressively enforcing it 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 group then appealed.
In overturning the lower court, the 9th Circuit panel said the law had resulted in "arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement."
The ban "is broad enough to cover any driver in Los Angeles who eats food or transports personal belongings in his or her vehicle," the court said. "It appears to be applied only to the homeless."
The ordinance can be violated even if somebody is not found sleeping in a vehicle and even if the car is not filled with loads of personal belongings, the court said. "There is no way to know what is required" to violate it, Pregerson wrote.
Despite attempts by the homeless 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 ruling said.
Los Angeles officials had argued that the law was being enforced to protect health and safety. Some of the homeless were arrested in cars with garbage, pets and their personal belongings, the city said.
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."