Homeless Case May Move Forward on Equal Protection Grounds

William Fulton on
Feb 16, 2015

A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the City of Sacramento's ban on camping in public parks and allowing only limited camping on private property -- may move forward because the plaintiffs have stated a valid equal protection argument, the Third District Court of Appeal has ruled.

In response to concerns about the homeless, Sacramento adopted an ordinance banning camping on public property and in public parks and permitting camping on private property for only one consecutive night. In 2009, the city cracked down on a group of homeless people who were camping in a fenced lot on private property with the property owner's permission. Several times in September of 2009, the homeless people were arrested and their belongings were seized even though they were camping on private property. 

The homeless residents and two social service providers sued, claiming among other things that the anti-camping ordinance was unconstitutional on its faced based on a variety of grounds, including a violation of the constitutional protections of due process, equal protection, and freedom to travel. A number of other causes of action were also brought for example, that the criminalizes the status of homelessness in a way which is prohibited under Robinson v. California (1962) 370 U.S. 660.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne W.L. Change ruled in favor of the city, granting a demurrer with leave to amend. Rather than filing an amended complaint, however, the plaintiffs appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal. 

The Third District upheld Justice Change on virtually all causes of action. However, the court did rule that the plaintiffs had set forth a potentially valid claim that the anti-camping ordinance, as applied to the plaintiffs, violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, meaning the case can go forward in Superior Court. 

"The first amended complaint alleges the City selectively enforces the camping ordinance against homeless persons and those non-homeless persons who support the right of the homeless to be in the City," wrote Justice Louis Mauro for a unanimous three-judge panel. "We must read those factual allegations liberally and assume their truth on a demurrer."

Mauro went on to make it clear that the Third District was not and did not need to rule on the constitutionality of the anti-camping ordinance.  "Here, we conclude the allegations are sufficient to state a cause of action for declaratory relief asserting an as-applied challenge based on equal protection," he wrote.

The Third District ruled that the plaintiffs did not mae a sufficient as-applied constitutional challenge based on several other grounds, including:

1. Cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment.

2. Right to travel

3. Arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of laws

4. Substantive due process

5. Protections against vague laws. 

The Case: Allen v. City of Sacramento, No. C071710

The Lawyers: 

For Homeless Plaintiffs: Mark Merin, [email protected]

For City of Sacramento: Chance L. Trimm, Senior Deputy City Attorney, [email protected]