City ordinance prohibiting people from living in their vehicles is “vague, discriminatory and unconstitutional,” advocates and attorneys say
Edward Sifuentes / ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties
The ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties and Think Dignity filed an amicus brief in the case of a man cited for allegedly living in his truck. The man’s defense attorney, Think Dignity and the ACLU say the law he is accused of violating is vague, discriminatory and unconstitutional.
“This law doesn’t adequately define what constitutes the criminal act of ‘living in a vehicle’,” said Coleen Cusack, an attorney defending Tony Diaz. “The law is overbroad and may encompass innocent activities that many of us do every day in our vehicles, such as eating, reading or resting.”
On Sept. 21, 2016, a San Diego police officer issued the citation after he said he saw Diaz sleeping in a pickup truck that parked in the Bonita Cove area of Mission Beach. Diaz challenged the citation but lost. The case is now under appeal.
Anne M. Rios, executive director with Think Dignity, an organization that advocates for basic dignity and equitable treatment of people experiencing homelessness, said: “The practice of criminalizing poor and homeless people for engaging in basic life-sustaining activities like eating, sleeping, resting, and seeking shelter is unjust, cruel and entrenches people in homelessness. When it is done under the guise of a vague and biased ordinance, it adds insult to injury.”
In their amicus brief, the ACLU and Think Dignity argue that the law does not offer clear guidelines for what is prohibited and invites arbitrary enforcement. Therefore, it is impossible for ordinary people to know what actions might subject them to criminal penalties.
“There are several problems with this ordinance but the biggest one is that it’s so vague that no one can know when they are violating it,” said Jonathan Markovitz, a staff attorney for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “It’s possible that people can be cited for taking a short nap in their car, or for having camping equipment with them.”
Markovitz added: “We hope that our amicus brief, filed with Think Dignity, will send a sadly necessary reminder to the city of its obligation to respect homeless people’s civil liberties and human rights. We need to support people experiencing homelessness, not criminalize them.”