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Proposed Curbs on Homeless May Face Constitutional Snag

May 23, 1985|MARTHAL. WILLMAN | Times Staff Writer

Two years after California's vagrancy law was struck down by the Supreme Court, many cities are struggling to find ways to discourage homeless people from living on the streets.

Glendale officials are studying a proposal by Police Chief David J. Thompson which, in effect, would make it illegal to be homeless in the city.

Thompson this month proposed an ordinance that would outlaw sleeping in a vehicle, tent or any other temporary shelter. Violation of the law would be punishable by a fine of up to $100, and refusal to move the vehicle or shelter could lead to its impoundment. Failure to pay the fine could result in a sentence of up to six months in jail.

The chief's proposal, which may be expanded to include the homeless who sleep in private doorways, is aimed at pushing the homeless out of town, said Scott Howard, senior assistant city attorney.

Taken Off Agenda

The measure was scheduled for routine adoption by the City Council on May 7 but was quickly pulled off the agenda for further study when advocates for the homeless heard about it.

One area of dispute is that the measure would apply not only to the homeless, but also to travelers who make short visits to friends or relatives in Glendale and stay in motor homes, campers and tents. There are no trailer parks or campgrounds in the city; the closest is 18 miles away in Sylmar and costs $18 a day.

But a far bigger roadblock for the proposed ordinance is its potential constitutional problems. Civil-liberties lawyers say such an ordinance, like the anti-vagrancy efforts in many other cities, might have a tough time holding up in court.

In an interview, Fred Okrand of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California called the Glendale proposal "an unfortunate thing" and said the ACLU would "take a very hard look" at any ordinance adopted by the city. "To make it almost impossible to even live is quite heartless," he said.

Written Recommendation

Thompson, vacationing in England, was not available to comment on his plan but, in his written recommendation to the council, he said:

"While every effort needs to be made to aid persons in need who find themselves without shelter, allowing the use of public parks, sidewalks, streets and parking lots is not appropriate. The attendant health dangers and the potential for criminal victimization are great." He said that "use of (public) properties as temporary shelter areas prevents legitimate public access and lowers the quality of the related public service."

Police Capt. Tom Rutkoske, who is studying the issue for the department, said, "We receive complaints from all over the city," an average of 20 to 35 weekly, up significantly from last year.

But, Rutkoske said, police now are powerless to do anything other than ask vagrants to move on. He said the city's vagrancy law "has no teeth in it anymore" since California's vagrancy law, upon which the city's ordinance was patterned, was declared unconstitutional.

The nation's high court ruled that the California law, enacted in 1872, was vague and a violation of privacy rights. The law allowed police to arrest anyone who refused "to identify himself and to account for his presence when requested by any peace officer to do so."

Civil rights advocates charged that the California law allowed police to single out individuals merely because they looked different. The landmark ruling in 1983 came in the case of San Diego Police Chief William Kolender vs. Edward Lawson.

No Enforcement Power

Since that decision, California cities have been mainly powerless to deal with vagrants who have flocked to the state seeking jobs and a temperate climate, officials say.

Howard acknowledges that any ordinance the council considers "will need a great deal of further study" to avoid infringements on constitutional rights. He said that, if the ordinance proposed by police had been adopted by the council, "We would not have gone hog wild" to enforce it by arresting transients. He said the purpose of the ordinance is to give police more authority to keep transients moving, rather than to enforce penalties.

The threat of fining a person who has no place to live is a bit ironic, Sheila Gonzalez, Glendale Municipal Court administrator, conceded. If a person has no money for a place to stay, then he or she would be unable to pay a fine. However, a judge could assign the offender to do some public service or suspend the fine.

Failure to Appear

Gonzalez said her "experienced guess" is that most people cited under such an ordinance would not show up in court. Failure to appear or pay a fine is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to $500 in fines, six months in jail or both.

Advocates for the down and out feel the city ought to try to help its homeless, estimated to be at least 30 on any given night, rather than fine or jail them.

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