Ninth Circuit Panel Rules Municipal Code Sections Unconstitutionally Vague

Editor’s note: the following is a Legal Alert from Best Best & Krieger. Originally posted here.

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A three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a section of the Los Angeles Municipal Code prohibiting the use of a vehicle “as living quarters either overnight, day-by-day, or otherwise” is unconstitutionally vague under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court determined that the language used provides insufficient notice of the conduct it penalizes and, therefore, promotes arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. Should this decision become final, all ordinances prohibiting sleeping or living in cars are not prohibited. Only those ordinances with language that fails to sufficiently identify prohibited behavior are unconstitutionally vague. Thus, a well drafted ordinance might survive judicial scrutiny.

In its decision in Desertrain v. City of Los Angeles, the Ninth Circuit panel specifically held section 85.02 to be unconstitutionally vague. In particular, the panel found fault with the fact that no definition of “living quarters” was included and there were no clear time limitations because of the use of the word “otherwise.” In addition, the court held that section 85.02 encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. In this case, the court noted that the provisions appeared designed to allow selective enforcement against the homeless.

The case arose from a number of arrests in late 2010 by the Venice Homeless Task Force, a group of officers established by the Los Angeles Police Department to combat the problems associated with homelessness. Four homeless individuals sued the City alleging numerous constitutional and statutory violations, though they did not specifically allege vagueness. Subsequently, the homeless plaintiffs raised vagueness in a motion for summary judgment. That motion was denied by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in 2011, and the plaintiffs appealed.

The Ninth Circuit panel’s ruling may not be final. The decision may be appealed for an en banc hearing by the full Ninth Circuit and may possibly be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Follow-Up Contact: For questions regarding this case or its implications for your city and public safety department, please contact one of the authors of this legal alert listed at right in the Municipal Law and Public Safety groups, or your BB&K attorney.

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Disclaimer: BB&K legal alerts are not intended as legal advice. Additional facts or future developments may affect subjects contained herein. Seek the advice of an attorney before acting or relying upon any information in this communiqué.