Sacramento Stronghearts Challenge Panhandling Prohibitions; Santa Cruz ACLU Still Silent

NOTES BY NORSE:  The Sacramento ACLU has moved to challenge its anti-homeless panhandling prohibitions.   The legal eagles who put together the Sacramento County panhandling ban included an exemption for charitable groups which clearly discriminates against those begging for their own survival and/or that of their family and friends.  Local Attorney Mark Merin has a history of standing up for homeless people in Sacramento both in court and even personally supporting a homeless encampment on private property (that was ultimately shut down by city bigotry).  [See ]

Santa Cruz’s panhandling law has had one successful court challenge:  However the law is massively overbroad and discriminates against the homeless [See full law below].  MC 9.10 severely restricts panhandling times and places.   MC 5.43 further restricts “display devices” (such as a donation cup).  MC 4.04.010 and MC 4.04.015 add additional penalties for not paying the outrageous fines of hundreds of dollars for each begging incident and deepen the criminalization of those charged (even if not convicted) of the MC 9.10.  An intensive campaign against “chronic offenders” has combined police, D.A., probation, and psuedo-social service workers in a  massive vendetta against the poor in Santa Cruz in the so-called Downtown Accountability Program.  The City has put in large prominent red change-collecting machines around which it is illegal to sit or panhandle within 14′.  These provide a cold steely “alternative” to panhandling (i.e. give your money to a machine and let bureaucrats decide who will benefit) are are marketed under the chilling label “Real Change Not Spare Change”.

The local ACLU has so far declined to make any public statements about this law, overtly abusive though it is to the rights of poor people (and those who want to donate to their survival).

Homeless activists sue Sacramento County to block panhandling ban

By Brad Branan

Published: Thursday, Jul. 17, 2014 – 12:32 pm

Last Modified: Friday, Jul. 18, 2014 – 7:01 am

The Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging a new Sacramento County panhandling ordinance as unconstitutional.
Supervisors unanimously passed the ordinance in May, which prohibits aggressive panhandling anywhere in the unincorporated county and bans solicitation specifically at street medians, banks, ATMs and gas stations.

The advocacy group, which publishes a bimonthly newspaper dedicated to homeless issues, is being represented in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and local attorney Mark Merin. ACLU Legal Director Alan Schlosser said the plaintiffs want a hearing within a week for a temporary injunction to suspend the ordinance, which took effect June 13.

Schlosser said the new law violates the U.S. Constitution by allowing charities to collect money in public places but banning panhandlers from doing so.
Panhandling restrictions have been approved by local governments across the state, including Citrus Heights, Elk Grove and Sacramento. But Sacramento County appears to be unique in creating an exemption for a group of people, Schlosser said.

The exemption and a desire to stop the law from ever being enforced were reasons for the ACLU to challenge the law, he said.

“They were certainly not intending to limit aggressive panhandling,” Schlosser said. “They are trying to push the homeless out of town.”

County spokeswoman Chris Andis said it’s county policy not to comment about pending litigation.

However, Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan defended the ordinance.

“Staff went to great lengths to write a law that recognizes the constitutional right to panhandling, but also restricts its locations where people feel vulnerable,” she said.

Earlier this month, Rancho Cordova tentatively approved a similar restriction on “aggressive panhandling” that prohibits solicitation in places where people are a “captive audience” to pleas for money. The law must be approved a second time next week before becoming law.

A city staff report said the amendment is legal based on recent court decisions and “the regulations are content neutral, meaning the regulations do not treat individuals differently depending on their message.” The regulations must also “serve an important government interest.”

Pamela Poole, executive director of the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, said she and other homeless members of the committee are worried that the county law will prohibit them from collecting donations in conjunction with the distribution of Homeward, which has a circulation of 8,000 to 11,000. Homeless people get copies of the newspaper free or for a nominal fee and then seek a recommended donation of $1 for each paper, which they keep.

Billy Murphy, a plaintiff in the case, said he has largely relied on panhandling for income since becoming homeless in October. He said he has stopped panhandling in Citrus Heights after being cited there in March, and he worries that Sacramento County’s ordinance will have the same effect on him.

Murphy said he generally panhandles on sidewalks and doesn’t solicit people verbally. Instead, he just holds signs, such as “Homeless Will Work Have Bike Will Travel … Please Help.”

“I just want people to know I need help,” he said.

A county spokesman said last week that the county is spending the first two months educating residents about the law and has not yet issued citations. Under the law, violations would be cited as an infraction, with three infractions in six months resulting in a misdemeanor charge.

Representatives of the Watt Avenue Merchants Association, the Fulton Avenue Association and the Florin Road Partnership told the board in May that they support the ban. They said panhandling seems to be on the rise in certain parts of the county.

Read more here:



MORE NOTES BY NORSE:  The especially egregious and unconstitutional sections of the ordinance are emboldened.  However the massive sweep of the law so restricts the place, time, and manner of the laws as to make illegal peaceful non-threatening non-obstructive forms of sparechanging.   The “forbidden zones”, for instance, created for panhandling both in time and space leave very little opportunity for making donation requests.   Asking a friend for  money is illegal, for instance (and has reportedly been charged in the past if the person looks homeless enough and the cop wants to drive the person away).  People have spent months in jail panhandling.  Particularly misleading is the title of the law “Aggressive Solicitation”.  Only 3 of the 28 provisions of the law [MC 9.10.040 b, c and d] can be reasonably considered restrictions on “aggressive” panhandling.  The rest seek to wash poor people from the sight of tourists and residents.



9.10.010    Definitions.

9.10.020    Time of solicitation.

9.10.030    Place of solicitation.

9.10.040    Manner of solicitation.

9.10.050    False or misleading solicitation.

9.10.060    Misdemeanor.


For the purposes of this chapter:

(a)    “Solicitation” means any verbal request, or any non-verbal request made with a sign, by a person seeking an immediate donation of money, food, cigarettes or items of value. Purchase of an item for an amount far exceeding its value, under circumstances where a reasonable person would understand that the purchase is in substance a donation, is a donation for purposes of this chapter. A person is not soliciting for purposes of this chapter when he or she passively displays a sign or places a collection container on the sidewalk pursuant to which he or she receives monetary offerings in appreciation for his or her original artwork or for entertainment or a street performance he or she provides. This chapter does not apply to peddling and soliciting activity governed by Chapter 5.40.

(b)    “Person” means any individual person, group of persons or organizations.

(Ord. 2009-05 § 3, 2009: Ord. 2002-51 § 1, 2002: Ord. 2002-39 § 1, 2002: Ord. 2002-32 § 1, 2002: Ord. 94-10 § 1 (part), 1994).


Any person who solicits after sunset or before sunrise is guilty of an infraction.

(Ord. 94-10 § 1 (part), 1994).


Any person who solicits in any of the following places, or any person who solicits when the person solicited is in any of the following places, is guilty of an infraction:

(a)    At any bus stop;

(b)    In any public transportation vehicle or facility;

(c)    In any vehicle on the street;

(d)    On private property, unless the solicitor has permission from the owner or tenant;

(e)    Within fourteen feet of any building other than those buildings referenced in subsection (f). Where any portion of a building is recessed from the public sidewalk, the fourteen feet shall be measured from the point at which the building abuts the sidewalk;

(f)    Within fifty feet of any bank building or other financial institution buildings, including their outdoor automatic teller machines;

(g)    In the parking lot of any bank, savings and loan, or other financial institution;

(h)    Within fifty feet of any ATM machine or cash disbursal machine, or any other outdoor machine or device which disburses or accepts coins or paper currency except parking meters and newspaper vending machines;

(i)    Within fourteen feet of any fence that abuts a public sidewalk;

(j)    Within fourteen feet of any drinking fountain, public telephone, public bench, public trash compactor, information or directory/map sign, sculpture or artwork displayed on public property, or vending cart;

(k)    Within fourteen feet of any street corner or intersection;

(l)    Within fourteen feet of any open air dining area or cafe extension; or

(m)    Within fourteen feet of any kiosk.

(Ord. 2009-05 § 4, 2009: Ord. 2002-39 § 2, 2002: Ord. 2002-32 § 2, 2002: Ord. 94-10 § 1 (part), 1994).


Any person who solicits in any of the following manners is guilty of an infraction:

(a)    By coming within three feet of the person solicited, until that person has indicated that he or she wishes to make a donation;

(b)    By blocking the path of the person solicited, or other pedestrians, along a sidewalk or street;

(c)    By following a person who walks away from the solicitor;

(d)    By using abusive language as part of the solicitation or following a refusal that is directed at the specific individual or individuals being solicited;

(e)    By soliciting in a group of two or more persons;

(f)    While under the influence of alcohol or any illegal narcotic or controlled substance; or

(g)    By soliciting while in the immediate possession of a dog, by leash or otherwise.

(Ord. 2011-08 § 9, 2011: Ord. 2006-06 § 1, 2006: Ord. 94-10 § 1 (part), 1994).


(a)    Any person who knowingly makes any false or misleading representation in the course of soliciting a donation is guilty of an infraction. False or misleading representations include, but are not limited to, the following:

(1)    Stating that the donation is needed to meet a specific need, when the solicitor already has sufficient funds to meet that need and does not disclose that fact;

(2)    Stating that the donation is needed to meet a need which does not exist;

(3)    Stating that the solicitor is from out of town and stranded, when that is not true;

(4)    Stating that the solicitor is homeless, when he or she is not;

(5)    Stating that the solicitor is soliciting on behalf of an organization which does not exist or which has not authorized the solicitor to seek donations on its behalf.

(b)    Any person who knowingly solicits a donation stating that the funds are needed for a specific purpose and then spends the funds received for a different purpose is guilty of an infraction.

(Ord. 94-10 § 1 (part), 1994).


Any person who violates one or more of the sections of this chapter twice within a six-month period is guilty of a misdemeanor.

(Ord. 94-10 § 1 (part), 1994).

Continue reading

Albuquerque “Trollbusters” Wrack Up Gruesome Toll; What’s Happening in Santa Cruz?

NOTES BY NORSE:  A tip of the hat to Colin Campbell Clyde for passing on this story.  Yesterday at the Food Not Bombs meal, a man claimed he and a female friend had been accosted by five youths (all white and male) as they came back from the Boardwalk and headed for San Lorenzo Park.  The men had baseball bets and threatened the two with beatings if one of them didn’t give up his bike.  He claims he refused and was able to leave without further injury.   This guy is not always credible.

However another woman reported on my Sunday Free Radio show that several nights before she saw several policeman using what she considered excessive force on a man who appeared homeless to her at Ocean and Water St. near a bus stop there.    She was driving in her car, she reported, and heard the victim screaming help.  She stopped the car, got out and watched, and was concerned that a third police officer a woman–had her knee on the back of the prone man behind held down.

I am concerned to hear (and particularly to see, if anyone has video or other documentation) accounts of threats, assaults, and similar intimidations that are happening.  Please call me at 831-423-4833, e-mail me at, or post an account at .


Alex Rios, 18, is one of three suspects being held on $5 million bond in the killing of two homeless people. He was arraigned by video from jail. Credit Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal, via Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE — Jerome Eskeets’s last sight before he fell asleep on a soiled mattress late on Friday, on an empty lot speckled by shards of liquor bottles and discarded syringes, was the stars that glistened up above — “a beautiful thing,” he recalled this week, drunk, already, at 9:30 a.m. A cousin lay next to him that night, their bodies warmed by the cheap vodka they had shared. It had been “a good night,” Mr. Eskeets said, until he felt a dull pain on the bridge of his nose, a punch by one of the masked assailants that surrounded them.


“Cowards,” Mr. Eskeets exclaimed on Tuesday as he stood by the scene of the crime.


The assailants kicked and beat them, Mr. Eskeets said, using their hands and whatever else they could find — a metal pipe, wooden sticks, cinder blocks. Mr. Eskeets eventually broke free and ran away. His cousin, whose name he said was Al Gorman, and another homeless man he knew only as Cowboy, ended up dead. The police said they had both been disfigured beyond recognition by the thrashing, which included having their heads smashed repeatedly with the cinder blocks.


Two men were beaten to death in a litter-strewn lot in Albuquerque, attacks the police said were staggering in their brutality. Credit Mark Holm for The New York Times

Someone directed the officers to a stucco house on the other end of the lot, where a 15-year-old boy came to the door wearing shorts splattered in blood. Later, the boy told detectives that he, his 16-year-old half brother and their friend Alex Rios, 18, had taken turns assaulting the men. According to a criminal complaint, the teenagers had been “randomly attacking homeless people for over a year” and, by the 15-year-old’s estimates, they had beat up more than 50 since moving to the stucco house some months ago, as if it were a distraction, or a sport. As far as anyone could tell, though, this was the first time the beatings had resulted in deaths.


The killings exposed some of the profound social ills — alcoholism, abject poverty, neglect — that have long plagued New Mexico, a place best known for its stunning landscape. Since 1997, the state has led the nation in the number of alcohol-related deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is a large homeless population and, in a strange twist, a man named Victor Prieto, who identified himself as the father of the two boys, told KOB-TV in Albuquerque that he and the boys had been homeless at one point. (No one came to the door on Tuesday or Wednesday at the apartment where the family lives.)


Still, for all the dangers of living on the streets, the police said that such a vicious attack by teenagers was staggering and callous in its brutality — the only motive the teenagers supplied for the attack was that one of the boys was angry because he had just broken up with a girlfriend. According to the complaint, the 16-year-old threw dirt on the victims’ faces and said, “Eat mud.” When speaking to the police, the teenagers could not agree on how long the episode lasted: One said it went on for an hour, another said 20 minutes. After it was over, they went home and fell asleep, according to the complaint. The 16-year-old told the police that “he looked at himself in the mirror and saw the devil.”

Officer Simon Drobik of the Albuquerque Police Department said detectives had been combing through reports of assaults on homeless people to see if any may be linked to the three suspects accused of the weekend’s killings. He said that the younger boys had “minor stains” on their juvenile records, mostly for truancy and marijuana possession, and that Mr. Rios “had never been in too much trouble.”


“They just seemed to be lost kids,” Officer Drobik said.


The two juveniles had both dropped out of school — the 16-year-old after finishing eighth grade, and the 15-year-old after a middle-school suspension in February 2013, a spokesman for the city’s public school system said. Mr. Rios, for his part, was not enrolled in the school system, and it is unclear if he had been going to any school at all.


The half brothers lived with their father in one of the apartments at the stucco house, in a slice of Albuquerque’s west side known for its limited choices: Some struggle to get by, keeping their heads low and their mouths shut to avoid trouble, and some are lost to dysfunction and addiction. Chayo Perez, pastor at the Door Christian Fellowship, a Pentecostal church across the street from the lot, described his congregation as “a herd of exes — ex-drunks, ex-addicts, ex-cons.”


In court on Monday, the two juveniles confronted the accusations they face: Certified as serious youthful offenders, they could be tried as adults if a grand jury indicts them on first-degree murder charges, which carry a mandatory life sentence. Judge Linda Rogers of Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court set bond for them and Mr. Rios, who was arraigned by video from jail, at $5 million.

Jerome Eskeets was able to break free and run from the attack that killed his cousin and a man he knew only as Cowboy. Credit Mark Holm for The New York Times

In an interview, Mayor Richard J. Berry described the killings as “the saddest, most tragic thing I’ve seen” and said they “bring to light the plight of the homeless and just how dangerous it is out there on the streets.” The crime also highlights the confounding challenges facing the city, he said, like the lack of a centralized system listing the number of beds available in emergency shelters on any given night.


A survey by Heading Home, a nonprofit organization that has housed 328 chronically homeless people in Albuquerque since 2011, found that three in five of the 1,300 respondents had been assaulted at some point while living on the streets. Most, however, never notified the police, said the group’s director of development, Megan McCormick.


“There’s a fear of retaliation, a sense that the police sometimes can re-victimize them,” Ms. McCormick said.


Albuquerque has been struggling to overhaul its police department, castigated this year by the Justice Department for its excessive use of force. Particularly divisive was the police’s fatal shooting this year of James Boyd, a mentally ill homeless man. On Tuesday, officers fatally shot a man wanted on parole violations during a foot chase, making him the 27th person killed by the police since January 2010. One of those shootings, on Aug. 30, 2011, happened on the same lot where the homeless men were beaten to death over the weekend.


Mr. Eskeets — who said he was Navajo, like the men killed over the weekend — said that the teenagers had set upon him once before, last week or maybe the prior week, but that he had threatened them with an empty beer bottle and they had fled.


“I never told no one because no one cares,” he said flatly.


Since the attack, Mr. Eskeets has struggled to make sense of what happened. “Those boys knew me,” he said, his eyes filling with tears. “They called me Skeets.”


Officer Drobik said there was no evidence that the teenagers had targeted the homeless men because they were American Indian.


Pastor Perez said he held Christian music concerts and cookouts in the church’s parking lot on Saturday mornings, attracting addicts, prostitutes and homeless people, and also neighborhood youths. He recalled seeing the teenagers there sometimes.


Jesus Garza, one of the volunteers at the Church of Christ, not far from the lot, said he used to see them often, roaming the streets. “They didn’t carry themselves as if they were thugs or gangsters,” Mr. Garza said. “I always thought of them as average kids.”
Continue reading

Current List of Santa Cruz Police Officers

For Santa Cruzans and visitors who wish to identify police officers, here’s the most current list.  These cops are the individuals most directly involved with surveilling, harassing, citing, and arresting homeless people who’s only crime is sleeping or being present in a public place (such as a “closed” area).

Updated List of Santa Cruz Police Department Personnel
by SCPD (posted by Norse) ( rnorse3 [at] )
Monday Jul 21st, 2014 12:18 PM

I received this updated list of SCPD personnel–buffed up considerably from the earlier posting (referenced below). For those involved in copwatching or using the police in any capacity, this is a list of badge numbers matched up with employees.


Badge ID List for SCPD

Since police are not held accountable by City Council, the City Manager, or the Police Chief, nor the “Police Auditor”, I encourage the community use its video and audio capabilities to record and post incidents to both encourage citizen pushback against police abuse as well as press authorities to respond to incidents such as the Officer Vasquez takedown of Richard Hardy ( ), and the “gun in your back” behavior of Officer Hernandez [ ].

A previous listing of police numbers from a year ago is at .

Continue reading

“Liberal” L.A. and Scrooge-heavy Santa Cruz?

Notes by Norse:  One story does not make a saga and the LAPD are not known for a kindler gentler treatment of homeless people there.  Whether the L.A. Times is doing damage control for the LAPD after its recent court losses is unclear to me.  But they’re certainly ahead of Santa Cruz with its fencing off of under-the-bridges sanctuaries, stay-away orders from parks, & ongoing attacks on homeless survival sleepers.

In L.A., we have seen recent court victories by the ACLU, attorney Carol Sobel, and homeless activists throwing out the City’s anti-homeless “no living in a vehicle” law.  In Santa Cruz, vehicle-dwelling Kate Wenzell (“the scarf lady) was mercilessly pursued by Officer “Bumbasher” Barnett and other SCPD sleepsnatchers–with charges finally being dismissed many months later after a campaign of intimidation.

The Desertrain decision is currently going to an en banc panel for review at the behest of a reactionary judge.  It does not directly overturn Santa Cruz’s “sleep after 11 in your vehicle, get a $157 citation; do it three times, face a year in jail and $1000 fine” law–MC 6.36.010a.

Unhoused Santa Cruz’s under assault by the SCPD and Parks and Recreation continue to report ongoing ticketing, “move on to nowhere” harassment, and property seizure.  A local ACLU proposal for a moratorium on all camping and sleeping citations at night hasn’t even gotten to City Council here due to more stalling from ACLU’s anti-homeless chair Peter Geldblum and the timidity of the Pleich majority on the Board.  

City and county bureaucrats running the “Downtown Accountability Project” DAP (or Downtowners Against the Poor, as I call it) have yet to respond to Public Records Act requests.  These seek specific information on the particular “offenses” being targeted under the “100 Chronic Offenders” program.  This program is backed up by heightened security guard intimidation, “friendly fascism” from the ever-smiling “Hosts”, and back-up by packs of armed police officers who cluster quickly to deal with a yelling rebel,  but reportedly  decline to take complaints from homeless people.   

The DAP program with a phony compassionate funding and zero money for long-term housing is being used to clear downtown Santa Cruz of homeless-looking people caught in the tripwire of anti-homeless laws and enforcement practices while easing the conscience of those wondering what happened to the old Santa Cruz.

Can L.A. be more “progressive” than Santa Cruz?  Or have attorneys there with guts grabbed the city’s bigots by the balls knowing their “hearts and minds” will shortly follow?

Homeless activists and victims have begun appearing at City Council’s 5 PM “Oral Communications” period with video cameras, cell phones, and strong testimony.  At the last such protest, armed SCPD mediamasher John Bush confiscated four tape recorders and stopped an audible recording of the meeting under orders apparently from Mayor Lynn “Run em Out” Robinson.

Another such protest is slated for Tuesday July 22nd at 4:30 PM (809 Center St.).  Bring your friends.

L.A. leaders are crafting new plan to help homeless on skid row

Skid row homelessness

In their latest census, Los Angeles police counted more than 1,700 people living in tents and cardboard boxes in the 50-block skid row area. Above, people sit and walk on South San Pedro Street. (Jabin Botsford / Los Angeles Times)

Continue reading

4:30 PM Speak-Out and Protest Against Sleeping Ban at Santa Cruz City Council 7-8

Title: Homeless Take ACLU Sleeping Ban Suspension Resolution to City Council
START DATE: Tuesday July 08
TIME: 4:30 PM – 4:30 PM
Location Details:
809 Center St. Santa Cruz City Hall Courtyard
Event Type: Meeting
Contact Name Robert Norse
Email Address rnorse3 [at]
Phone Number 831-423-4833
Address 309 Cedar St. #14B Santa Cruz 95060
Speak-Out Before and At Santa Cruz City Council Celebrating a Homeless Rights Victory at the local ACLU Board of Directors on June 30th.

Presentation of Petitions and Demands to City Council to Overturn the City’s Anti-Homeless Sleeping Ban.

We’ll meet to prepare a presentation at 4:30 with coffee and snacks outside City Council and then go in to speak at Oral Communications around 5 PM inside Council Chambers

I sent an earlier version of the folloowing letter to Mayor Robinson at the beginning of the week:

From: rnorse3 [at]
To: lrobinson [at]
CC: jyork [at]; jpierce [at]
Subject: ACLU Action Urging A Moratorium on the Sleeping and Camping Laws
Date: Mon, 7 Jul 2014 14:55:39 -0700


On June 30th, the local ACLU passed the following resolution:

“Statement of Principle: The Santa Cruz County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union supports in principle a limited time moratorium on enforcement of camping ban laws and ordinances within the City and County of Santa Cruz on the grounds that such laws and ordinances selectively criminalize the homeless community.”

“While the chapter is mindful that such a moratorium raises practical problems within the community at large, we believe that the benefits of such an approach in terms of the opportunity for civic leaders, policy makers and stakeholders to reassess the efficacy of these laws and ordinances outweighs any temporary adverse impact.”

I, other HUFF activists, and homeless victims of the City’s Sleeping Ban will be coming to Oral Communications tomorrow to support this statement and ask that the Council take immediate action to implement it.

There is a clear lack of shelter space. There are the safety problems created by the criminalization of the homeless–more for the homeless themselves than for those who fear or blame them. Lawsuits in other jurisdictions have been successful in overturning anti-homeless laws.

I encourage you and your fellow Council members to act swiftly to restore basic civil and human rights to the homeless community here.

One of the most basic, of course, is to be able to sleep at night and to be secure in one’s property. If one is in danger of having it confiscated because sleeping is “illegal” after 11 PM, then one has no such security.

As a Free Radio Santa Cruz reporter, I will be audioing the meeting for broadcast. I assure you this will be done in a non-disruptive manner as has been the case without exception in the past.

I encourage you to respect the rights of the media, even those critical of your positions on various issues, to audibly make their own record of the meeting, as guaranteed by state law and the Constitution.

Robert Norse

Earlier story on the historic homeless victory forcing an ACLU Bo to protect the homeless right to sleep in Santa Cruz:

Earlier story on Mayor Robinson’s false arrest for “unattended audio recording at City Council” at .

Street Spirit story by Steve Pleich describing one version of his proposed moratorium on Sleeping Bans in Santa Cruz:

Added to the calendar on Monday Jul 7th, 2014 10:46 PM

iCal Import this event into your personal calendar.


by Robert Norse Monday Jul 7th, 2014 10:46 PM


Continue reading

Palo Alto and L.A. Victory; Santa Cruz Struggle Still to Be Won

By William Safford
Picture 1

On June 19, 2014, a federal court of appeals struck down a Los Angeles city ordinance which criminalized vehicle dwelling.  The court held that the law, which banned the use of a vehicle as “living quarters”, was unconstitutionally vague and subject to arbitrary, discriminatory enforcement.  This may seem like a Los Angeles problem, but to those immersed in Peninsula politics, it sounds eerily familiar.

Unconstitutional vagueness is a funny concept.  It sounds like a linguistic problem – tighten up the language and the law will be fine.  Yet, this decision recognizes that laws cannot be fundamentally unclear.  If you and I cannot tell what is illegal, and neither can the police, then how can enforcement ever be reasonable?  The answer, said the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, is that it cannot.  If the police arbitrarily decide who to enforce against, then there is no equality of justice, and the law becomes reminiscent of “English feudal poor laws designed to prevent the physical movement and economic ascension of the lower class.”

Why is this a Palo Alto issue?  Because the Palo Alto vehicle habitation ordinance (VHO) is identical in every important way.  Both laws criminalize living in a car, but leave important questions wide open.  The Palo Alto law attempts to define “human habitation” as “the use of a vehicle for a dwelling place, including but not limited to, sleeping, eating or resting”, but if anything, this just makes things less clear.

In response to this ambiguity, many have asked me what conduct is prohibited by Palo Alto’s new ordinance.  The problem is, nobody knows.  If Grandma and Grandpa take a trip from Seattle down to San Diego, and they pass through Palo Alto, they are dwelling in their RV.  Are they violating the law?  If I grab a burger from a drive through, and consume it in my car, am I “dwelling” in my vehicle?

The answer is “yes” to both questions, but wait!  Are we really going to arrest Grandma and Grandpa, with the possibility of up to six months in jail, for driving through the City in a mobile home?  Of course not.  And therein lies the problem.  My clients, who have been driven out of house and home, are using their vehicles as a last place of refuge.  And they will be prosecuted.

As I read the court’s decision, I was struck by the similarities between the Los Angeles plaintiffs and my own clients.  Catastrophic medical problems or sudden income disruption are common causes of homelessness.  Yet, when the citizens of Palo Alto asked their Council for a solution, they did not call for a better safety net or more shelter beds, but instead for prosecution of the unhoused.

This is exactly what Los Angeles tried, and the federal court invalidated the law.  Palo Alto can expect the same result if it begins enforcement, because I can personally guarantee that the law will be challenged, and not only for vagueness.  The Council might even try to write a better version of the law, and eliminate ambiguity.  However, the law is unconstitutional on other grounds.  The courts have long recognized that laws criminalizing basic human necessities, such as eating and sleeping, are fundamentally unfair.  Since someone who owns no private property cannot be expected to sleep and eat in a private place, we cannot punish them for doing so in public.  The Los Angeles plaintiffs picked one potential challenge to their ordinance, but there are others.

In the end, though, this is not a legal problem, but a moral one.  If we continue to look for ways to end homelessness by outlawing it, then we will continue to punish people for being unhoused, instead of addressing the root causes of poverty.  These are not nameless, faceless vagrants, worthy of our contempt.  They are our neighbors, our fellow citizens, and my clients – and I will not allow them to be punished for their status or run out of town as undesirable.

William Safford is a criminal defense lawyer in Palo Alto and founder of Homeless Criminal Defense.  The full text of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Desertrain v. City of Los Angeles and other information can be found at  Enforcement of the Palo Alto law has been temporarily suspended, but the City Attorney’s office has stated that it will be advising the Council of the meaning of Desertrain before the end of the year.
If you are unhoused, and you need help with a criminal charge or a ticket related to your status, visit and click on “Contact”.  It may not be possible to provide representation in every case, but if your case is accepted, representation will be pro bono (free of charge). Continue reading

Speak-Out Leads to Historic Shift in Local ACLU Avoidance of Homeless Civil Rights Issues

by Robert Norse
Tuesday Jul 1st, 2014 9:12 PM

A crowd of homeless supporters showed up at last night’s ACLU meeting (outnumbering the Board by nearly 2-1 at one point). In a series of speeches (to be rebroadcast on Free Radio Thursday night), they urged the local ACLU to issue a policy statement against the Santa Cruz Sleeping Ban and other anti-homeless laws. It was the largest such homeless crowd ever to hit an ACLU Board meeting in my experience. In the hour and a half before the meeting more than twice that number signed petitions demanding action. Folks got there under their own steam without prior organizing after an announcement and flyering at the Red Church a scant hour earlier. Perhaps because it’s end of the month or perhaps because some of had enough, we may be seeing a significant rise in activism.

The ultimate 5-3 vote supported Steve Pleich’s resolution to suspend camping laws in the city and county came after several decades of ACLU indifference or hostility to this most basic of human rights. It was a marked change in policy for the Board, long dominated by the notorious Sleeping Ban Supporter former Mayor Mike Rotkin. Even if the change is only symbolic and unsupported by legal action or public lobbying. There is much toxic propaganda about “homeless crime” and the need to “curb our compassion” This breath of sanity is welcome and long overdue.

Voting in favor of the resolution were Pleich, Jay Campbell, Mithrell Bowerman, Daniel Etler, and Ron Pomerantz. Voting against were Mike Rotkin, Peter Geldblum and Keith Lezar.

The resolution reads:
“Statement of Principle: The Santa Cruz County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union supports in principle a limited time moratorium on enforcement of camping ban laws and ordinances within the City and County of Santa Cruz on the grounds that such laws and ordinances selectively criminalize the homeless community. While the chapter is mindful that such a moratorium raises practical problems within the community at large, we believe that the benefits of such an approach in terms of the opportunity for civic leaders, policy makers and stakeholders to reassess the efficacy of these laws and ordinances outweighs any temporary adverse impact.”

Homeless folks have faced a steep escalation in destruction of their camps, seizure of the property, “move along” harassment as well as citations and arrests in the last few years as the economy continues to tank. New programs designed to paint lipstick on the endless goal of “cheaply” eliminating homeless people from the downtown and city generally by eliminating their civil rights.

These include the “100 Chronic Offenders” program, the Downtown Acountability Program, the “Real Change” Red Starve-Out-the-Panhandler meters, the outrageous constriction of public spaces for performers and the public on the sidewalks of all business districts, the prosecution of those unable or unwilling to deal with to their “no sleep” and “no sitting” tickets with misdemeanor charges, and the escalating Drug War under Take-Back-Santa-Cruz orchestrated Needle Hysteria.

Well-intended incremental legal efforts by Brent Adams’ Sanctuary Village group have been repeatedly rebuffed by city bureaucrats. Thuggish First Alarm Security guards have been promoted to positions as CSO’s on the SDPD (“Big John” being the example I’ve noticed). The “Happy Hosts” continue to retain an unmarked inaccessible office in the downtown area (if you can find it and determine when it’s actually open, please let us know!). Illegal commercial signs retain immunity from legal scrutiny but homeless backpacks and survival gear are fair game for seizure and harassment.

The local ACLU has said nothing about any of these issues in spite of being repeatedly approached on them. [See “Expose the Local ACLU: No Help for Homeless Rights ” at

Steve Pleich, who founded the “Homeless Legal Assistance Project” and is running for City Council for the 3rd time has been on the ACLU board for 3 years, and Vice-Chair for 2. Until last night he has not demanded any resolutions on these issues come up for a vote, in spite of having a host of allies appointed to the Board.

It is far too early to see if this is any kind of a turning point in either Pleich’s politick approach or ACLU timidity, but it seems clear that as Pleich himself agrees, having a significant number of people demanding change makes a difference.

In the presence of such numbers, previously timid and/or silent members of the Board may have gathered courage. The verbal commentary given by the angry and eloquent speakers will be on Free Radio Santa Cruz (101.3 FM, streams at, archives at .

At one point Chair Geldblum seemed to have ordered the issue closed without a vote and demanded that the public leave. Though there was no objection by Pleich and the rest of the Board to this behind-closed-doors process, the word was passed down later that a vote was held and the resolution passed. .I’ve asked for more specific details from those permitted to remain and when more info, I’ll pass it on. ,

§Flyer Distributed June 30th

by Robert Norse Tuesday Jul 1st, 2014 9:12 PM


Petition and Flyer Which Prompted the Largest Homeless Presence at the ACLU Meeting in Years

Continue reading

Real Sidewalk Clutter–Illegal Merchant Signage on Pacific Avenue

by Pat Colby and Robert Norse ( rnorse3 [at] )
Sunday Jun 29th, 2014 11:37 PM

Last September the City Council cut back already severely-limited public space on the sidewalk to even less. I estimate less than 2% of the original Pacific Avenue sidewalk is now available for sitting, sparechanging, performing with a cup, vending, and/or political tabling. In an attempt to justify this strangulation of space, Councilmember Pamela Comstock made a comment characterizing what she saw on the downtown sidewalks as “sidewalk clutter”. In response to this and to show the extent of selective enforcement of the sidewalk laws–favoring merchants and penalizing street people–Pat Colby created a video showing what she considered real clutter–commercial sidewalk sandwich board signs–all of which are illegal under the Municipal code (zoning ordinance section 24.12.320.3). Pat played her power point presentation last Tuesday (6-24) at City Council.

Colby’s presentation speaks for itself and can be found on line at .

City Council’s own “imbedded” video groupie Community TV also documented the presentation at , where it can be found 2 hours 28 minutes and 20 seconds into video accompanying the on-line archive.

I contacted Eric Marlatt, Principal City Planner, the week before the Council meeting. He advised me that ALL free-standing commercial signs (such as you find at regular intervals on Pacific Avenue and its sidestreets) are illegal–at least on Pacific Avenue. He also advised me that there had been no complaints or enforcement against these illegal signs for the last year.

In her presentation and at other points Pat has expressed concerns that the signs as well as the numerous sidewalk cafes that encroach upon the public sidewalk may burden disabled people and could be in violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

I share with her another major concern that selective enforcement of the Downtown Ordinances against sitting, tabling, etc. downtown has been repeatedly used with a political impact (if not a political agenda) of driving away a class of people from the downtown area. Police harassment of poor people, performers, political activists, low-income travelers, and homeless folk downtown under the Downtown Ordinances escalated last year, though the departure of The Great Morgani, the colorful accordion performer, presaged a lengthy period ignoring people in “illegal spots”.

Such spots are any part of the ‘public’ sidewalk that is within 14′ of any building, street corner or intersection. kiosk, drinking fountain, public telephone, public bench,
public trash compactor, public trash can, information or directory/map sign, sculpture or artwork displayed on public property, ATM machine or other cash disbursal
machines, vending cart; or fence [See MC 5.43 at ]. This amounts to 98% of the sidewalk if you include the for-profit only sidewalk cafe encroachments and the space taken by the illegal sidewalk signs.

Whether this “benign neglect” was done to forestall protests, coax back performers, save tax payer money, or simply wait until the heat could be turned up later–is anyone’s guess. However virtually every performer, panhandler, tabler, etc. is situated “illegally” given the grandiose restrictions intended to give the police a blank check to “move along” anyone they want.

The amiable tolerance can and has been quickly withdrawn–as in the case of Kate Wenzell [See “Downtown Ordinances — A License to Harass Scarf Lady Kate Wenzell” at] I hope to be writing updates on Kate’s case soon.

The obvious double standard being used, allowing illegal sidewalk signs that stand there all day while human beings are required to move every hour is glaring and undeniable. She has done a significant public service in bringing this issue to public attention.

For the full “Deadly Downtown Ordinances” with scattered updates go to )–however to be complete you’ve got to download the more recent 1st Amendment-choking additions mentioned in the Comments sections.

For those hopeful of a “positive change” with the proposed “painted boxes” being prepared by Assistant to the Assistant City Manager Scott Collins, get ready for disappointment. Collins’ latest e-mail to me suggests there will be same amount of space as is currently “legal”. His exact words in the e-mail were: “Council’s intention is to have a similar amount of space available for performance and tabling as currently exists, simplifying the matter with clearly delineated space.”

This, of course amounts to 2% or less of the total sidewalk space. The 2% is an approximation that comes from having measured the spaces actually legal under the current law.

Scott Collins “map” of these spaces, which he presented to City Council last year is wildly inaccurate where he claims there are double the number of spaces that actually exist.

So far City Council member Posner and Vice-Mayor Lane have taken no public interest in the situation. Collins has also indicated he will not be soliciting or accepting public input on the location, number, and extent of the new “performance cages” as some fondly call the proposed painted boxes on the sidewalk–outside of which it will be illegal to busque, table, or vend (perhaps sit or sparechange).

Again, a tip of the hat to Pat Colby and the others who helped create the graphic presentation illustrating the City’s dirty double standard.


Continue reading