ACLU of Southern California Wins Historic Victory in Homeless Rights Case

April 14, 2006 12:00 am

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Appeals Court Ruling Ends the Criminalization of Homelessness

LOS ANGELES — The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a historic decision today in a case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the National Lawyers Guild seeking an end to the criminalization of people who sleep on the streets when no shelter is available.

The decision in the case, Jones v. City of Los Angeles, marks the first time in a decade that a court has struck down an ordinance that criminalizes the lack of shelter.

“Anyone who cares about homelessness and finding positive solutions to this serious issue in our community will be delighted and encouraged by this decision,” said Ramona Ripston, Executive Director of the ACLU of Southern California. “The ACLU has always maintained that police should target serious crime like rape and drug trafficking and not criminalize people for sleeping on the street when there is nowhere else to go.”

Writing for the majority, Judge Kim M. Wardlaw ordered the District Court to stop enforcement of a Los Angeles city code that allows police to arrest people for sleeping on the street when there are no available shelter beds. Judge Wardlaw’s opinion cited news articles about the issue from The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, including a recent front-page series on homelessness on Skid Row by columnist Steve Lopez.

“The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles,” Judge Wardlaw wrote.

ACLU of Southern California Legal Director Mark Rosenbaum, who argued the case in December, called the decision “brave.”

“This decision is the most significant judicial opinion involving homelessness in the history of the nation,” Rosenbaum said. “The decision means in Los Angeles it is no longer a crime to be homeless. The homeless in our community, twenty percent of whom are veterans and nearly a quarter of whom are children, can no longer be treated as criminals because of involuntary acts like sleeping and sitting where there are not available shelter beds to take them off the mean streets of the city. My hope is that the city will now treat homelessness as a social problem affecting all of us, not as a crime.”

The case, originally filed in February 2003 by the ACLU of Southern California and Carol Sobel for the National Lawyers Guild, sought to end the enforcement of Section 41.18 (d) of Los Angeles city code.

In Los Angeles County at least 88,000 men, women and children — 8,000 to 10,000 in Downtown Los Angeles alone — are without homes. There are beds for less than half of the homeless in Los Angeles county, comprehensive services are available to far fewer than half, and the county jails are routinely used as a substitution for mental health facilities.

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