California Court of Appeal Rules on Homeless Campers’ Challenge to Sacramento’s “Anti-Camping” Ordinance

Three weeks ago I blogged about Allen v. City of Sacramento, a case in which several homeless people challenged a Sacramento city ordinance that prohibits camping on private or public property, commonly known as Sacramento’s “anti-camping ordinance.”

As explained in my prior posting, the ordinance makes it a misdemeanor to camp or store “camp paraphernalia” for more than one consecutive night on public or private property (even with the consent of the owner). The impetus for the case was its enforcement against several homeless people who had set up what amounted to a small “tent city” on the private property of Mark Merin, the attorney and homeless rights advocate who brought the action on behalf of the homeless campers. The challenge was based on a number of grounds, mostly Constitutional. At the time of my posting, the trial court had sustained in its entirety Defendant’s demurrer to the complaint, and the case was pending before the California Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal has now issued its ruling on the case. In short, the Court of Appeal upheld the demurrer in all but one respect—the “as-applied” challenge based on the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Court held, “Although plaintiffs fail to meet their appellate burden on most of their claims, they state a cause of action for declaratory relief asserting an as-applied challenge based on equal protection.”

Essentially, a law is unconstitutional “as applied” if it is applied in a way that discriminates against a particular group—in this case, homeless people. As the Court of Appeal notes in its decision, it has merely determined that Plaintiffs may proceed with their as-applied challenge, not “whether plaintiffs can ultimately prevail on this cause of action.” There will be further proceedings in the trial court to determine whether the plaintiffs can successfully challenge the ordinance by proving that it was applied to them in a discriminatory manner.

As the Sacramento Bee reports, Merin plans to ask the Court of Appeal to reconsider its ruling and, if the Court declines, he will petition the California Supreme Court for review.

One interesting issue raised by this case is whether Merin himself, as the owner of the property involved, could have challenged the ordinance on the grounds that it somehow infringed upon his right to use his own private property as he pleases. We will never know whether such a challenge would have succeeded here, but it may also be an issue peculiar to this case that would not otherwise have wide applicability in other cases.

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