Shelter dogged by legal questions

A U.S. District Court judge has tossed out all but one of a man's claims against Laguna Beach and the Police Department related to how the homeless are treated in the city.

Leonard Porto's claim that the city's rules regarding who is eligible to stay at the Alternative Sleeping Location are unconstitutional will now go before another judge. Porto, who filed the suit in March when he was sleeping in his 1968 Chevy Camaro, anticipates the claim to be heard next year.

District Judge David Carter, in his Santa Ana courtroom, affirmed Magistrate Judge Marc Goldman's ruling that Porto did not have legal standing to sue the Laguna Beach Police Department for alleged misconduct in its treatment of the homeless.

But the judge did find a sticking point with the city's requirements, enacted in 2009, that lay out who is allowed to sleep at the ASL.

The city requires that the person have strong ties to the community, attended local schools from grades K-12 and proved to the police that he or she has been homeless in Laguna Beach for at least 18 months prior to Nov. 3, 2009.

People who do not meet the local requirements can sleep at the shelter only if it is not at capacity, City Manager John Pietig said in an email.

The ASL's 45 beds are full nearly every night, said Dawn Price, executive director of the Friendship Shelter.

The shelter maintains a guest list for non-Laguna Beach residents, Price said, and a lottery is held for those on the list when beds become available.

On average, 14 to 15 shelter guests are non-locals, though Price said the number fluctuates depending on weather and time of the month.

"Some people receive disability benefits and when they get a check, they might spend a night in a hotel," she said.

Porto, 57, claimed he was denied access to sleep at the ASL in Laguna Canyon, even though he has taken showers and eaten meals there, because the police failed to put him on a list of homeless locals. He said the locals-first regulation was enacted in 2009.

The argument didn't pass muster with Goldman, who wrote in his Jan. 23 ruling: "Plaintiff has not shown that he has a constitutionally protected liberty or property interest in access to the ASL."

The city said Porto's lawsuit was brought by a man quick to file complaints.

"I am going to defend my rights any time I am attacked," Porto said in a follow-up email.

The ASL lawsuit is Porto's third and second against Laguna Beach.

In 2008 Porto challenged a violation he received for scuba diving off the Laguna Beach coast.

Porto said he and a friend in July 2007 entered the water at Fisherman's Cove and swam toward Shaw's Cove. A police officer cited Porto for "disobeying a lifeguard's order not to dive in that area," according to Porto.

"No one said we could or could not go diving," Porto said.

Porto appealed to the U.S. District Court, then to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, he said.

A 9th Circuit judge affirmed a district court ruling that Porto's constitutional rights were not violated.

As for the ASL issue, Porto refused to sign the ASL's liability agreement, thus denying him sleeping privileges there, Laguna Beach city attorney Philip Kohn said. Porto said he hadn't been sleeping at ASL because of the locals-first regulation, but had been using it for food and showers until 2011 when he was refused because he had not signed the waiver.

"He [Porto] has not been able to allege, much less show, that he has been a resident of the city," Kohn said. "He was denied entry to the shelter; it's not a durational determination."

Porto said he didn't sign the waiver for the shelter because he felt uncomfortable with part of its language.

"At the bottom of the waiver, you sign away any and all rights regardless of the reason," Porto said. "I don't think anyone in their right mind would do that."

Porto, an independent computer technician, has a place to sleep now. He has been renting a one-bedroom Laguna Beach studio since December.

However, last week Porto filed an additional claim against the city, alleging a Laguna Beach police officer mistreated him during the early morning of Nov. 30, 2012, according to the May 29 filing with the city clerk.

Police issued Porto a $43 citation for violating the city's municipal code, which prohibits a person from parking a car on any public street, beach or park, where someone can't see inside the vehicle.

Porto said he had to sleep in his car because he was not able to sleep at the ASL. The car was legally parked in a handicap spot with a handicap placard visible through the front windshield, he said.

A sunshade covered the front windshield while towels hung from the inside on the driver- and passenger-side windows, Porto said in an email.

"Blocking the windows makes the vehicle a lot warmer, allows privacy and reduces heavy condensation," Porto said.

Porto claims Officer Mike Jeffries violently awakened him at 2:30 a.m. Nov. 30 while he slept in his car in front of 300 El Paseo near Main Beach during a rainstorm, the claim said.

"Officer Jeffries banged on the roof of claimants' vehicle multiple times to awaken claimant [Porto]," according to the claim, which also said a female officer accompanied Jeffries. "Disabled claimant [Porto] suffered severe emotional and physical trauma of being awakened violently by strangers ... [the officer's] actions were intentional, malicious, uncivilized and shocking."

Porto said he immediately moved the car after receiving the citation. He then bought a sandwich and cup of coffee at a nearby gas station and eventually drove to another county for three days to "recover and rest," he said.

Neither police nor Kohn commented on Porto's most recent claim due to pending litigation.

Porto said he is not seeking monetary damages as much as a change in practice.

"Because it's illegal to sleep [in public] in Laguna Beach, it forces people onto private property," Porto said. "I would like the city to stop harassing sleeping homeless people."

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