Suit threatened over city's car-camping ban | November 22, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 22, 2013

Suit threatened over city's car-camping ban

Coalition of attorneys argues Palo Alto's new ordinance is cruel, unconstitutional

by Gennady Sheyner

A group of Palo Alto attorneys is threatening to sue the city over a recently adopted ban on people living in their cars, a law they claim effectively criminalizes homelessness and is far more draconian than car-dwelling restrictions in other jurisdictions.

The coalition, led by Carrie LeRoy, is representing on a pro bono basis several homeless residents who will be unable to live in their cars as of Jan. 6. The plaintiffs include James and Suzan Russaw, a couple who the attorneys say wish to stay in the area to be close to their grandchildren. James Russaw, 84, is also receiving kidney dialysis and needs to be able to get to his medical appointments, the attorneys said in a letter to City Attorney Molly Stump.

Fred Smith, a homeless man who has spoken publicly against the ban, is also a client. At the Aug. 5 meeting, shortly before the council voted 7-2 for the ban — with Karen Holman and Marc Berman dissenting — Smith urged the council to reconsider.

"I recently lost my job, my wife and my house. I now live in an RV in a commercial zone. Please don't criminalize me," Smith said, drawing an applause.

LeRoy said in an interview Monday the list of people represented by the group may expand as she and her colleagues proceed with their legal opposition. Other attorneys involved are William Abrams and Paul Johnson, both of the firm King & Spalding, Stanford University professors Juliet Brodie and Michele Dauber, Menlo Park-based attorney Jeff Koppelmaa, criminal attorney William Safford and public utilities and telecommunications lawyer Nick Selby. The group contends the city's new ban is far too broad and that staff misrepresented other cities' ordinances to the council before the vote.

"There were a number of attorneys who expressed real concerns and had deep reservations over whether this was actually a constitutional ordinance," LaRoy said.

Abrams, whose work has included high-profile cases involving civil-rights intellectual property, called the Palo Alto ordinance "overbroad." The effect of the law, he said, will be to force homeless individuals who own or lease vehicles to leave Palo Alto or risk arrest. It will target the city's "invisible" population, he said — people who don't have any other options for shelter.

In their letter, the attorneys request a meeting with Stump by Dec. 5. Unless the request is met, the letter states: "We will proceed with filing a complaint in court against defendants on behalf of the plaintiffs." The defendants in this case would be the City of Palo Alto, the Palo Alto Police Department and Police Chief Dennis Burns.

Palo Alto's ordinance was approved after nearly two years of community meetings, outreach and persistent criticism from the homeless community. The ordinance makes it illegal for individuals to use "a vehicle for a dwelling place" (it makes exceptions for mobile-home parks and for guests of city residents). The council adopted it largely in response to a growing encampment of homeless people at the Cubberley Community Center in south Palo Alto and the resulting increase in complaints to police about what city officials dubbed a "de facto homeless shelter."

According to police data, the number of complaints about Cubberley dwellers rose from 10 in 2010 to 39 in 2012. An August staff report noted that in some cases, vehicle dwelling resulted in "nuisances or more serious disturbances to residents and businesses." The ordinance states vehicle habitation causes the city to "incur increased costs for policing, maintenance, sanitation, garbage removal and animal control" and that it "creates a risk to the health, safety and welfare of those persons in the vehicles, as well as the public at large."

Abrams rejected this argument. The city, he said, already has plenty of ordinances in places for addressing incidents in which people disturb the peace, engage in violent conduct or engage in public drug or alcohol use.

"This is directed toward getting rid of homeless people in Palo Alto," Abrams told the Weekly.

At the Aug. 5 meeting, Stump told the council that violation of the car-dwelling ordinance would in most cases result in an infraction, though it could be turned into a misdemeanor at the city attorney's discretion. Staff noted enforcement would be largely based on complaints. The most severe penalty would be a fine of $1,000, Stump told the council.

Critics contend the proposed punishment is not only draconian but illegal.

In recommending the ordinance, staff from the planning department and the city attorney's office cited similar bans in neighboring jurisdictions and noted 92 percent of the cities in Santa Clara County (all except Monte Sereno) have restrictions of some sort in place. In San Mateo County, all cities except for Colma, East Palo Alto and Portola Valley regulate vehicle habitation, a report from city staff states. Not having such an ordinance makes Palo Alto a "magnet" for vehicle dwellers, proponents of the ban argued.

The attorneys contend that this argument — other cities have such ordinances and so should Palo Alto — is a misrepresentation. While most cities do indeed have restrictions, Palo Alto's new law is both broader and more punitive than those elsewhere, LeRoy said. In Mountain View and Menlo Park, for instance, vehicle bans are limited to residential areas (in Menlo Park, this includes 300 feet within a residential zone). In Los Altos, it is illegal to "stop, stand or park a vehicle" for longer than 30 minutes between 2 and 6 a.m., when a notice is posted on the block. Palo Alto's law, meanwhile, applies to all streets, all the time.

Furthermore, punishment for violating this ordinance in other cities is a parking citation. In Palo Alto, it could potentially be incarceration, LeRoy said. The difference between a parking ticket and possible jail time is huge, she said. Palo Alto's ordinance, she argued, effectively makes homelessness a crime.

"Cities across our nation have come up with restrictions that may be directed at homeless residents, but include exceptions so as to avoid punishing homeless residents for involuntary acts necessary to human survival, such as the acts of resting or sleeping," her letter stated. "The VHO (vehicle habitation ordinance), on the other hand, is one of the most punitive ordinances in the area and it has the effect of criminalizing the status of homelessness."

Though Stump said on Aug. 5 that violations would be prosecuted as misdemeanors as a "last resort," Abrams said the assurance is insufficient.

In addition to the ordinance, the council adopted a separate law on Aug. 19 mandating all community centers, including Cubberley, be closed between 10:30 p.m. and sunrise.

LeRoy noted in an interview that the council's ban on overnight parking at Cubberley and other community centers already addressed the major problem that the city was trying to solve in banning vehicle habitation. Given the new restriction on community-center hours, the broader ban on vehicle dwelling wasn't tailored to address any legitimate concerns, she said.

"If vehicle dwellers can't be here at night during normal sleeping hours, do you still need to ban vehicle habitation throughout the city?" she asked.

She contended that if the City Council knew that the proposed ordinance goes far beyond those of neighboring cities, it might have been less likely to support the proposed vehicle-habitation ban. She couldn't say Monday what an acceptable alternative ordinance would be, noting that this might be the subject of settlement discussions.

"I think the effort now is to repeal the vehicle ordinance," LeRoy said.

Abrams concurred: "Now, we have an ordinance that is illegal, that is unconstitutional and that needs to be stricken down."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Posted by Clarkg, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2013 at 7:38 am

Nice! These attorneys should be commended - but I'm afraid they might be going after the wrong targets! They should also target, very specifically, the 7 dirty, moral-less local PA politicians who ignored all the public outcry and coldly pushed this ugly thing through. They are the ones responsible, and they should pay from their own pocketbooks as an example to any other small group of rich, full-of-themselves, holier-than-thou small-time politicians who think they can criminalize (and thereby socially engineer away) the "surplus population" in their city. Seven people, who should answer for this reckless abuse of elected power. Maybe they should be forced out of their homes and made to live in the street- with their new laws- until they learn some empathy.

Posted by fingers crossed, a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 3, 2013 at 2:50 pm

I hope this works. It just felt wrong to push out the homeless from our city just so that they could try to find another city in which to rest/sleep. It especially felt wrong if we don't supply a shelter for them to go.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 3, 2013 at 3:19 pm

>It especially felt wrong if we don't supply a shelter for them to go.

Fingers crossed, well you could start by opening up a room in your own home, in Barron Park. Make sure you check with your neighbors first, though...there could be significant liability issues.

It is finally time that Palo Alto rejects being a magnet for the homeless.

Homelessness MUST be criminalized. There is no possible solution, until it is. Giuliani understood this, and he made significant headway in NYC. The bleeding heart solution is no solution at is just a cruel hoax.

Posted by Another perspective, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 3, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Thanks Craig. Unfortunately, there are things that can't be stamped out just by criminalizing them. Homelessness is one. Stupidity is another.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 3, 2013 at 4:05 pm

>Unfortunately, there are things that can't be stamped out just by criminalizing them.

Unless homelessness IS criminalized, there won't be any practical solution. Let's not get stupid about this...criminalization is the fundamental starting point.

Posted by Burly-Q, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 3, 2013 at 4:24 pm

No doubt, it will be a class-action suit. Such a lawsuit means big trouble for Palo Alto, and could go to the Supreme Court.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 3, 2013 at 4:38 pm

>Such a lawsuit means big trouble for Palo Alto, and could go to the Supreme Court.

Given the frivolous nature of such a lawsuit, Palo Alto should be preparing a lawsuit against the lawyers that bring it.

Posted by Judd for the defence, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 3, 2013 at 5:36 pm

Not sure how you can criminalize being homeless. Laughton as usual misrepresents what Giuliani did-- he made sure that every violation of the law was dealt with. The simple act of being homeless is not in of itself a crime. The law that us being challenged is the car camping ordinance-- anyone who stops on the street and dozes in his car would be breaking the law. Homelessness is not relevant in this case. Laughton also seems to have little regard for our democratic process-- the lawyers can file suit. The courts will decide this matter and determine if the case us frivolous, not Laughton. Oh and the comments about opening up your house is old and stale.

Posted by fingers crossed, a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 7, 2013 at 5:30 pm

I'm still glad I HAVE a bleeding heart. You must be just 'egging' us on. You can't possibly believe that becoming homeless is a crime. We might as well criminalize people getting cancer too. How dare they!

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 7, 2013 at 6:24 pm

>Not sure how you can criminalize being homeless

You can't criminalize becoming homeless, but you can criminalize remaining homeless. Giuliani forced the homeless to enter shelters and/or enter drug rehab, against their will. Hillary Clinton called this criminalization of homelessness. I agree with both of them.

The current system of benign neglect is both heartless and cruel and ineffective and detrimental to our town.

The homeless in Palo Alto, who refuse help, should be arrested, cleaned up, dried out...then the bleeding hearts in PA can sign up to take them into their own homes.

Posted by Judd for the defence, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 7, 2013 at 6:35 pm

"You can't criminalize becoming homeless, but you can criminalize remaining homeless. "
Good, so you will open up your home so that homeless person will not remain homeless. Of course, you did say, above and in many other threads, that homelessness should be crminalized. Period. Sounds like you are backtracking.

"The homeless in Palo Alto, who refuse help, should be arrested, cleaned up, dried out..."
We'll first you assume, in your usual snide manner, that the homeless are all alcoholics . Then we can assume that you are suggesting we offer the homeless some form of welfare. Thought you were against that as well. seems like you are all tied up in knots.

" the bleeding hearts in PA can sign up to take them into their own homes."
I would think that you and Ruth would take in a homeless person.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 8, 2013 at 9:14 am

>I would think that you ...would take in a homeless person.

I did that once, and learned my lesson. However, the bleeding hearts might be more patient than me. They can offer their own form of personal welfare to help solve the problem, as well as to make their actions consistent with their rhetoric. After all, there are many empty rooms in private homes around here.

Posted by Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 15, 2013 at 5:54 pm

Hello Neighbors & Friends@
Please be part of the solution.
Imagine you have to sleep in your car overnight. Now imagine sleeping in your car with your children. Would you be able to stay warm, comfortable and fortified if it were 30 or 40 degrees. Probably not, its just cold.

I am happy to say, based on funds donations, we qhave provided min. 2 night motel stay to between five to seven folks (families & singles) per day or every two days since 12/07. And even extending stays for some most vulnerable to host/guest situations in private homes of Palo Alto residents.

Survivial Suppiles - As of 12/09/13, NHN sent pleas out to our networks. As we complied, supplies (12/09 - 12/11) begining with our most vulnerable ending their motels stays, we gave them survivial blankets.

Then 12/11/13 as we were collecting more survivial items which were donated, we organized a series of "survivial supplies" events. Begining at UUCPA Wed. 12/11, Midtown Center. 12/14 and Location TBA (to be announced) Wed. 12/18.

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