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'Incredibly dramatic' federal court ruling could impact Orange County homeless lawsuit

'Incredibly dramatic' federal court ruling could impact Orange County homeless lawsuit
A homeless encampment is pictured in the Santa Ana River area in Anaheim in November. (File Photo)

In a decision that could play a role in a closely watched Orange County case, a federal court ruled this week that it is unconstitutional to prosecute homeless people for sleeping on public property when they don’t have access to shelter.

Though the ruling concerned a case in Boise, Idaho — where homeless people had challenged local ordinances prohibiting them from staying on public property overnight — it also affects California and other Western states.

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As a result, it could come into play in a federal lawsuit filed in January against Orange County and the cities of Costa Mesa, Anaheim and Orange on behalf of homeless people cleared from a former encampment along the Santa Ana River.

That action seeks to prevent the cities from citing or arresting those who violate municipal rules that prohibit camping in public areas.

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The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors on public property on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”

“The 8th Amendment prohibits the imposition of criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter,” Judge Marsha Berzon wrote for the court.

Brooke Weitzman — an attorney with the Santa Ana-based Elder Law and Disability Rights Center who is representing the plaintiffs in the Orange County case — said the 9th Circuit ruling should send a message, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“You cannot criminalize the homeless for eating, sleeping or sitting outside simply because they have no other shelter,” she told The Times.

Costa Mesa spokesman Tony Dodero said Wednesday that “city officials are aware of the ruling and [are] determining its effect on the anti-camping ordinances.”

Bob Solomon, a clinical professor of law at UC Irvine, called the 9th Circuit decision “an incredibly dramatic opinion” that “extends to the homeless population the notion that there is an obligation to provide an alternative to camping, and if there is no alternative — and I’m going to assume that’s a reasonable alternative — that you cannot be punished for doing that.”

U.S. District Judge David Carter, who is overseeing the Orange County case, has consistently pushed county officials to find ways to house the homeless and has threatened an order preventing cities from enforcing their anti-camping ordinances or citing the homeless for sleeping or setting up in public.

This week’s ruling, Solomon said, would seemingly give Carter additional ammunition for such action.

“I think that this is going to say to Judge Carter, ‘I have a tool that I have hinted that I’m willing to use, and the 9th Circuit has just made sure it’s in my toolbox,’ ” Solomon said.

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