California Appellate Court Holds that Homeless Individuals’ Allegations of Selective Enforcement Sufficient to State Equal Protection Challenge to Municipal Camping Ordinance

By lfsuser on April 04, 2015

On February 6, 2015, the California Court of Appeal, in Allen v. City of Sacramento, held that Plaintiffs, consisting of 22 homeless individuals and two people providing services to the homeless, had adequately stated a cause of action for declaratory relief based on allegations of selective enforcement of the City of Sacramento’s camping ordinance as applied to them.

The City’s camping ordinance, codified as Sacramento City Code section 12.52.030, provides, in part:

It is unlawful and a public nuisance for any person to camp, occupy camp facilities, or use camp paraphernalia in the following areas:

  1. Any public property; or
  2. Any private property.

The ordinance contains an exception for overnight camping on private residential property by friends or family of the property owner so long as the owner consents and the overnight camping is not more than one consecutive night. (Sac. City Code § 12.52.030.) The ordinance also provides that the City Manager may issue a temporary permit to allow camping on public or private property in connection with a special event. (Sac. City Code § 12.52.030.) Violation of this ordinance is a misdemeanor. (Sac. City Code § 12.52.030.)

Here, the Plaintiffs were camping on a private lot in a light industrial area of the City of Sacramento with the permission of the private lot’s owner. The police informed Plaintiffs that they were violating the City’s camping ordinance. When Plaintiffs continued to camp on the lot, the police issued citations on two occasions and removed their camping gear. The Plaintiffs acquired other camping gear and continued their camping activities. The police ultimately arrested Plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs then sued the City alleging three causes of action: declaratory judgment, injunction, and violation of Civil Code section 52.1. The City demurred to the complaint, and the trial court sustained the demurrer. Rather than amend the complaint, the parties agreed judgment could be entered against Plaintiffs and Plaintiffs could appeal.

On appeal, the Appellate Court considered whether the trial court had properly sustained the demurrer. In particular, it sought to determine, among other things, whether, in regards to Plaintiffs’ first cause of action for declaratory judgment, the Plaintiffs adequately stated (1) a facial void-for-vagueness challenge to the ordinance and (2) an as-applied constitutional challenge based on the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, the right to travel, equal protection and class-based discrimination, arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of laws, substantive due process, and protections regarding vague rights.

Facial Constitutional Challenge Based on Vagueness

The Court rejected Plaintiffs’ claims that the camping ordinance was unconstitutionally vague, stating that the ordinance clearly applied to Plaintiff’s conduct – specifically, that Plaintiffs were occupying camp facilities or using camp paraphernalia on private property for more than one consecutive night without a City permit. The Court noted that the words in the camping ordinance, such as “camp”, “camp facilities”, “camp paraphernalia”, “public property”, and “private property” were adequately defined elsewhere in the Sacramento City Code. As such, the Court found that the camping ordinance was not vague on its face and that the trial court property sustained the demurrer as to this cause of action.

As-Applied Constitutional Challenges

The Court rejected all of Plaintiff’s as-applied constitutional challenges except for Plaintiff’s claim that the camping ordinance, as applied to them, violated their right to equal protection of the law. The Court recognized that equal protection required equal treatment of persons similarly situated and that equal protection is violated if a law is applied in a discriminatory manner against a particular group.

Here, Plaintiffs alleged that the City selectively enforced the camping ordinance against homeless persons and those non-homeless persons who support the right of the homeless to be in the City. Reading those factual allegations liberally and assuming their truth, the Court held that the allegations were sufficient to state a cause of action for declaratory relief asserting an as-applied challenge based on equal protection. The Court, however, was clear to state that this was not a determination of whether Plaintiffs could ultimately prevail on the cause of action.

While the Appellate Court did not reach the merits on Plaintiff’s equal protection claim, this case is instructive in regards to the various constitutional challenges homeless individuals can bring against such ordinances as well as the analysis that courts will undertake to determine whether such challenges have been adequately pleaded. From a risk-management perspective, this case highlights constitutional concerns that municipalities should consider when seeking to either implement, amend, or repeal such ordinances.

A full copy of the opinion can be found here.

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