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Q&A: Can Citrus Heights police still enforce camping ban after 9th Circuit Court ruling?


homeless camp
File photo, a 72-hour notice posted next to a homeless camp off Mariposa Avenue in Citrus Heights. // CH Sentinel

Sentinel staff report–
Last month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that enforcement of certain aspects of anti-camping ordinances are unconstitutional forms of “cruel and unusual punishment,” unless there are enough beds available at local shelters. That ruling left some cities and counties scrambling to review their policies and ensure compliance with the Court’s application of the Eighth Amendment.

The County of Sacramento immediately acted to stop enforcement of its camping ban for any occupied camps in County parks, but in Citrus Heights, police say the court ruling doesn’t have much effect.

“We researched this to see what impact it would have on our enforcement of camping and we decided that there was pretty minimal impact,” Lt. Dave Gutierrez told The Sentinel in a phone interview last week. “This case only impacts, sleeping, sitting and lying on public property. It doesn’t allow people to set up camp. It doesn’t allow people to break other laws.”

“We want the community to still call us (about camping),” Gutierrez said. “We’re still going to respond to every call.”

In the decision, Martin v. City of Boise, the court considered the question of “whether the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment bars a city from prosecuting people criminally for sleeping outside on public property when those people have no home or other shelter to go to.” The court wrote, “We conclude that it does.”

“[A]s long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” the court further stated, calling the actions of sleeping, sitting and lying “unavoidable consequences of being human.”

The court ruling, a 2-1 decision by a three-judge appeals court panel, is currently being appealed by the City of Boise. But for now, the ruling stands and is considered “the law of the land,” according to a legal update to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors provided last week by County Counsel Robyn Drivon.

Guest Column: Court ruling makes crackdown on homeless camps difficult

So while the appeals process works its way out in court, what changes can residents expect in Citrus Heights as far as law enforcement involvement with homeless camps?

Lt. Gutierrez stressed that the ruling only affects enforcement on public property and doesn’t have any effect on private property, where he said the majority of camping-related calls are received. Gutierrez also clarified that while “camping” and “sleeping” may be terms often used synonymously, they have different definitions in the law and in the court’s decision.

“Based on our review, [the court ruling] is about sleeping in public; it’s not about the traditional word of camping, because when people say camping, they think tents, clothes line,” the lieutenant said. “This case doesn’t give people permission to do that on public property.”

However, he said there are some specific changes for enforcement in Citrus Heights, mostly related to enforcement in public parks.

Parks: “We’re unique because all the parks in our city are governed by the County of Sacramento, so we are going to follow their rules in the parks,” said Gutierrez, noting that the County has decided to more broadly interpret the court’s ruling. “We’re not going to enforce camping or sleeping in any of our parks.”

However, he said if residents see a camp in a park, police still want them to call it in.

“We are going to make contact to connect with services, make sure they’re not doing anything else illegal,” said Gutierrez. “What we won’t do is cite them.”

He also said enforcement of the City’s ban on open flames and vandalism, as well as any other applicable ordinances, will still be enforced.

City property: On public property owned and maintained by the City of Citrus Heights, Gutierrez said the department has decided to not take certain enforcement actions between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

“Between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., we’re not going to take enforcement action for sleeping, sitting or lying on public property, because that’s what this case specifically refers to,” the lieutenant said.

Private property: The ruling does not apply to private property, and no changes in police policy have been made. Occupants of camps can still be cited and vacant camp sites will have a 72-hour notice posted for removal of property.

Sleeping in vehicles: While not specifically addressed in the court ruling, Gutierrez said “it could be implied that sleeping in cars could be impacted by the case.” As such, he said police will still respond to calls about sleeping in vehicles, but won’t take enforcement action between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., if someone is “merely sleeping in a car,” as long as no other laws are being broken.

So what’s next?

Gutierrez said he isn’t aware of a goal to build enough shelter in Citrus Heights to house the approximately 200 homeless individuals police have identified in the city. He also said the solution is “not just as easy as find 200 beds and our problem goes away,” since he estimated about half the homeless in the city wouldn’t want to go to a shelter, even if offered.

Moving forward, he said the ruling hasn’t changed the police department’s goals in responding to homelessness, noting that the City-funded homeless navigator program has been a “tremendous success” in helping connect homeless with available resources and is currently working with more than 100 homeless individuals in the city who want help.

“Our goals have always been to provide services to those who want services,” the lieutenant said. “Citations are always a tool that are available to officers, but it’s more of a last resort.”

To read the 38-page court ruling in its entirety, click here.

Want to share your thoughts on homelessness in Citrus Heights? Click here to submit a letter to the editor for publication.

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