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Desertrain v. City of Los Angeles

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

June 19, 2014


Argued and Submitted, Pasadena, California: December 5, 2013.

Page 1148

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California. D.C. No. 2:10-cv-09053-RGK-PJW. R. Gary Klausner, District Judge, Presiding.

Carol A. Sobel (argued), Law Office of Carol A. Sobel, Santa Monica, California, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Blithe S. Bock (argued), Carmen A. Trutanich, Amy Jo Field, Lisa S. Berger, City Attorney's Office, Los Angeles, California, for Defendants-Appellees.

Before: Harry Pregerson, Marsha S. Berzon, and Morgan Christen, Circuit Judges. Opinion by Judge Pregerson.


Page 1149

PREGERSON, Circuit Judge:

This 42 U.S.C. § 1983 case concerns the constitutionality of Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 85.02, which prohibits use of a vehicle " as living quarters either overnight, day-by-day, or otherwise." Plaintiffs include four homeless individuals who parked their vehicles in the Venice area of Los Angeles and were cited and arrested for violating Section 85.02. Defendants are the City of Los Angeles and individual LAPD officers. Plaintiffs argue that Section 85.02 is unconstitutionally vague on its face because it provides insufficient notice of the conduct it penalizes and promotes arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. We agree.


I. Section 85.02 and the Venice Homelessness Task Force

In 1983, the City of Los Angeles enacted Municipal Code Section 85.02:

No person shall use a vehicle parked or standing upon any City street, or upon any parking lot owned by the City of Los Angeles and under the control of the City of Los Angeles or under control of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, as living quarters either overnight, day-by-day, or otherwise.

On September 23, 2010, Los Angeles officials held a " Town Hall on Homelessness" to address complaints of homeless individuals with vehicles living on local streets in Venice. Present at the meeting were a member of the City Council, the Chief of the LAPD, the Chief Deputy to the City Attorney, and the Assistant Director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation. City officials repeated throughout the meeting that their concern was not homelessness generally, but the illegal dumping of trash and human waste on city streets that was endangering public health. To address this concern, officials announced a renewed commitment to enforcing Section 85.02.

Within the week, the LAPD created the Venice Homelessness Task Force (the " Task Force" ). The Task Force's twenty-one officers were to use Section 85.02 to cite and arrest homeless people using their automobiles as " living quarters," and were also to distribute to such people information concerning providers of shelter and other social services.

Defendant Captain Jon Peters ran the Task Force, which included Defendant Officers Randy Yoshioka, Jason Prince, and Brianna Gonzales. Task Force officers received informal, verbal training, as well as internal policy memoranda, on how to enforce Section 85.02. Supervisors instructed officers to look for vehicles containing possessions normally found in a home, such as food, bedding, clothing, medicine, and basic necessities. According to those instructions, an individual need not be sleeping or have slept in the vehicle to violate Section 85.02. Supervisors directed officers to issue a warning and to provide information concerning local shelters on the first instance of a violation, to issue a citation on the second instance, and to make an arrest on the third.

II. Enforcement of Section 85.02

Beginning in late 2010, the Task Force began enforcing Section 85.02 against homeless individuals. Four such homeless individuals are Plaintiffs in this case:[1]

Page 1150

Plaintiff Steve Jacobs-Elstein ran his own legal temp company for almost ten years before losing his business and his home in the economic downturn of 2007. He subsequently suffered severe anxiety and depression. He was able to keep his car, a small SUV, and pay for insurance, maintenance, and gas with the $200 he collects each month from General Relief. He kept his few possessions -- mainly two computers and some clothes -- in his car because he could not afford storage fees.

When Jacobs-Elstein first became homeless, he slept in his car. In mid-2009, an LAPD officer approached Jacobs-Elstein while parked on a city street, warning him that if he slept in his vehicle at night on public streets he would be arrested. At the time, Jacobs-Elstein was unaware that such conduct was unlawful. He then looked up Section 85.02 on the Internet and, based on what he read and what the officer told him, understood Section 85.02 to mean that he could not sleep in his car on a public street in Los Angeles. He began sleeping at motels and on other private property, and soon obtained permission from a Methodist Church in Venice to sleep in his car while it was parked in the church parking lot, provided he leave the lot by 8:00 a.m. each day. He also registered with the People Assisting The Homeless's " Venice Vehicles to Homes" program, secured a spot on the housing wait lists maintained by the Department of Mental Health and the Los Angeles Housing Authority, and was approved for a Section 8 housing voucher through the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

On the morning of September 13, 2010, Jacobs-Elstein was waiting in his car on a public street for the First Baptist Church of Venice to open so that he could volunteer to serve at the food distribution program, and also receive a meal. That morning, Defendant Officer Gonzales and her partner ordered Jacobs-Elstein out of his car, searched his car, and cited him for violating Section 85.02. The officers provided him no shelter or social services information.

A few weeks later, Jacobs-Elstein was again waiting in his car on a public street for First Baptist to open when Officer Gonzales banged on the driver's side window and told Jacobs-Elstein it was illegal to live in his vehicle. Two weeks later, Gonzales and her partner again spotted Jacobs-Elstein, this time when he was parked legally in the First Baptist parking lot, and yelled at him from across the street that the next time they saw him they would take him to jail.

On the morning of October 31, 2010, Jacobs-Elstein was exiting his car when Officer Gonzales and her partner detained, handcuffed, and arrested Jacobs-Elstein for violating Section 85.02. The car contained personal belongings, such as boxes and computer equipment, as well as plastic bottles of urine. Jacobs-Elstein was in custody for about seven hours before being released, after which he borrowed money to get his car out of impoundment. He had no criminal record before this arrest.

Page 1151

On January 30, 2011, Defendant Officer Yoshioka and his partner cited Jacobs-Elstein again for violating Section 85.02, this time while Jacobs-Elstein was sitting in his car, talking on his cell phone. Jacobs-Elstein had dog food in the car. He told Officer Yoshioka the dog food was from a friend whose dog he would later take to the park. The car also contained salad boxes, water bottles, a portable radio, and bags of clothes. Jacobs-Elstein showed Officer Yoshioka proof that he resided on private property, and thus was not sleeping in his vehicle. Officer Yoshioka informed him that he need not sleep in his car to violate Section 85.02.

During this last incident, Officer Yoshioka's partner gave Jacobs-Elstein a " Local Resources Information" pamphlet. This was the first time he was offered any such information. The flyer claimed to provide guidance on how to comply with Section 85.02. Yet Jacobs-Elstein soon discovered that this information was not helpful to him. It provided information only on RV parks, where Jacobs-Elstein could not park his car, and shelters, where he could not keep his belongings during the day.

Plaintiff Chris Taylor sells his artwork at a booth on Venice Beach, where he works every day. In October 2010, Officer Yoshioka issued a warning to Taylor for sleeping in his small two-door car through the night, in violation of Section 85.02. He then began sleeping on the sidewalk, which is legal. Starting December 1, 2010, Taylor began sleeping at Winter Shelter in Culver City. He rented a storage facility to get his excess property out of the ...

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