SANTA ANA — Legal Aid attorneys filed a lawsuit against the city of Santa Ana on Monday to end local use of a state anti-lodging law to roust the homeless.
Advocates claim the city has been unfairly using the state law--which bars people from setting up semi-permanent lodging in public areas--against the homeless since the city was ordered to stop enforcing its own anti-camping ordinance in June.
Use of the city's anti-camping ordinance, most of which has been upheld by a Superior Court judge, has been suspended while a separate Legal Aid lawsuit works its way through an appeals court.
Prosecution of 25 homeless defendants cited beginning in January under the city's ordinance was also halted until the appeals court decides if the local camping ban is constitutional.
Attorneys for the homeless in Santa Ana say police in recent months have turned to enforcing the state anti-lodging law to push transients out of the Civic Center area.
"To tell homeless people it's illegal to remain in an area of Santa Ana is tantamount to telling them it's illegal to live in Santa Ana," said Harry Simon, a Legal Aid lawyer.
In a 1988 ACLU challenge to the city of San Diego's enforcement of the state lodging law, a San Diego Superior judge ruled that the statute was not vague and did not directly punish the status of being poor.
City attorneys and police said Santa Ana officers have issued citations only to people who habitually camp in the plaza, or who block parking spaces or fire exits.
"The big issue in this case is going to be the judicial interpretation of the word 'lodging,' " Assistant City Atty. Robert Wheeler said. "This case is going to make some new law."
Legal Aid's lawyers filed Monday's lawsuit on behalf of three homeless people who were cited under the state law. Twelve homeless people went to Legal Aid complaining of the citations. Police were uncertain of the total number of citations handed out under the state law.
One man was cited when he was lying down in the Civic Center area and reading a book at night, Simon said. Another was ticketed while trying to sleep on the ground near a state government building in the same area, and a third was cited while waiting for a ride to a rescue mission, he said.
Police and city attorneys said the state law previously was used in conjunction with the city camping ban.
"We've always filed both charges together," said Police Chief Paul M. Walters. "We aren't treating anybody any differently."
Walters said officers continue to issue the citations under the state law, but the district attorney's office has held off prosecuting homeless defendants under that law until the appeals court completes its review of the city ordinance.
Police and the city "have an obligation to enforce the law," Walters said. "If we don't, we'll have another tent city" in the Civic Center, he said.
Simon said homeless advocates do not disagree with officials using the state law to keep people from erecting tents or structures in the area. "But there's no clear criteria here for who will be cited and who won't," he said.
Simon said he will seek a temporary injunction later this week to keep the city from issuing more citations under the state law.