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ACLU Sues to Block Enforcement of L.A. Ordinance Against Homeless

Times Staff Writer

The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday, seeking to prevent Los Angeles police from ticketing and arresting people who sit, sleep or lie on public sidewalks at night.

Filed on behalf of six homeless residents, the lawsuit accuses the city of cruel and unusual punishment for cracking down recently on public sleeping while failing to provide homeless people with an alternative.

A lack of sufficient shelter beds in Los Angeles makes it impossible for the homeless to comply with the law and avoid arrest, said Carol Sobel, a private lawyer working with the ACLU of Southern California. Sobel said the policy is designed to drive homeless people out of skid row at a time when property values in the area are rising.

“The city has engaged in benign neglect for a long time, as has the county,” Sobel said. “Now that skid row property has a high value, they want to sweep the homeless out of view.... Everybody agrees people shouldn’t be sleeping on the street, but the answer isn’t to put them in jail.”

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Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes skid row, said that she had not seen the lawsuit but that the enforcement efforts are necessary.

“I morally cannot support a street culture that allows behavior that is self-destructive to the individual and harmful to the community,” she said. “I think it’s unhealthy and it’s degrading.”

Mayor James K. Hahn said he had not seen the lawsuit and declined to comment. City attorney’s office spokesman Eric Moses said: “I haven’t seen the lawsuit, but I have seen downtown Los Angeles. It’s a dangerous situation out there. It’s unsafe and unhealthy.”

Skid row is one of three areas in the city that Police Chief William J. Bratton has targeted for his “broken windows” theory, which holds that cracking down on low-level offenses prevents more serious crimes.

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Although the ordinance in question -- 41.18 (d) -- preceded Bratton, attorneys argue that his policy has led to increased arrests and citations.

In addition to the city itself, the suit also names Bratton and Capt. Charles Beck of the Central Community Police Station as defendants. Neither Beck nor Bratton could be reached for comment. But speaking on a local radio program Wednesday morning, Bratton argued that the department “does not focus on the conditions of being homeless, but the department focuses on criminal behavior.”

Bratton’s approach has won the support of business and other interests downtown.

“We’ve been very much in support of the police enforcing 41.18 (d),” said Tracey Lovejoy, executive director of the Central City East Assn. “We’ve been arguing they should have been doing it years ago. The fact that they have started to do it is a good sign.”

The ordinance prohibits sitting, lying or sleeping on any public sidewalk, street alley or other public way at any time anywhere in the city.

Lovejoy said that people sleeping on the street create a health hazard. She questioned the statement that there are not enough shelter beds: “Some missions say they have openings every night.”

Advocates for homeless people argue that the increased enforcement does nothing to resolve the problem of an insufficient supply of housing and shelter beds or the need for services for the mentally ill.

Late last year police stepped up enforcement of the ordinance against sleeping in public, said Alice Callaghan, of Las Familias Del Pueblo, who appeared at an ACLU press conference held outside the LAPD’s Central Division station.

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The six plaintiffs in the lawsuit have all been cited or arrested and convicted. In December 2002, police cited plaintiffs Patricia and George Vinson, a homeless couple forced to sleep on the street because they had no funds for a hotel and they had missed a bus that would have taken them to a shelter in South Los Angeles, the suit states.

Another plaintiff, Thomas Cash, suffers from diabetes and kidney failure and has trouble walking. According to the lawsuit, Cash told officers he was sitting on the sidewalk to catch his breath before walking back to his hotel room. He was cited.

Penalties for violating the ordinance can include fines or jail time. For a homeless person living on an assistance check of little more than $220 a month, paying a fine could mean no money for shelter or food.

The suit seeks an injunction prohibiting enforcement of the ordinance from 9 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. and any time of the day or night when the person suffers from a medical condition.


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