SAN DIEGO (CN) – A federal judge has blocked San Diego from enforcing a municipal code outlawing living in vehicles, a win for disabled residents who have been ticketed and had their vehicles impounded because they are homeless.
U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia found San Diego’s “vehicle habitation ordinance,” which makes it illegal “for any person to use a vehicle while it is parked or standing on any street as either temporary or permanent living quarters,” likely violates the Constitution because “the ordinance is both vague on its face and is being arbitrarily enforced.”
Battaglia issued an injunction Tuesday barring the city from ticketing people or impounding their vehicles under the ordinance, or prosecuting any outstanding tickets that have already been issued. The city must comply within 30 days and submit a report to the court detailing how it has followed the court order.
The injunction is a win for a group of about 800 disabled San Diegans who filed a class action against the city last year for criminalizing their living situation. The group, represented by attorneys with Disability Rights California, claims the ordinances used to ticket them and impound their vehicles disproportionately affect people who cannot afford rent or use local homeless shelters because the shelters cannot accommodate their disabilities.
At issue are two city laws, the vehicle habitation ordinance and “nighttime RV ordinance” which makes it illegal to park oversize vehicles on city streets between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.
Disability Rights California attorney Ann Menasche said in an interview they consider the injunction a “significant victory.”
“The judge understood the vehicle habitation ordinance is unconstitutional and the impact it was having on people affected by its enforcement. He had to balance the equities and looked at what was going on and decided the harm was way greater than any legitimate enforcement purpose,” Menasche said.
The lawsuit against the city survived dismissal earlier this summer, when Battaglia found “facially neutral” policies may still violate the Americans with Disabilities Act if they disproportionately affect disabled people.
This week, Battaglia agreed with the class’ argument the city’s vehicle habitation law is vague, noting “the ordinance still provides nothing to indicate what turns a vehicle into ‘a person’s home’ or what activities turn merely enjoying one’s vehicle into ‘the act of living in a place’ such that the vehicle becomes a living quarters and thus a violation of the ordinance.”
Battaglia noted two plaintiffs were ticketed for “benign and lawful matters,” including one man who had legally parked his RV and got a ticket while reading a book in the vehicle and another who was ticketed several times while in a business parking lot with the owner’s permission.
Both men were told by officers they could be ticketed “any time” the police saw their vehicles. The plaintiffs say because the law is arbitrarily enforced they don’t know what they can do to avoid tickets.
“The court finds plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the ordinance is vague because it fails to alert the public what behavior is lawful and what behavior is prohibited,” Battaglia wrote.
Battaglia also found the class members were likely to suffer irreparable harm because if the ticketing continues “they stand to lose their only form of shelter through impounding.” He said their living circumstances tip the balance of hardships in their favor, necessitating an injunction.
“These vehicles keep plaintiffs off the streets, where they would face dangerous and unsanitary conditions. Plaintiffs’ vehicles also allow plaintiffs a place to live that accommodates their disabilities, which a shelter cannot. If plaintiffs’ vehicles are impounded, plaintiffs are unlikely to afford the fees to recover them, and could be permanently displaced, along with all their possessions,” the judge wrote.
But as for the nighttime RV ordinance, Battaglia found “while the court sympathizes that this ordinance leaves plaintiffs with nowhere to park between these hours and is decidedly unfair, the law is not ambiguous, unclear or vague in any way.”
The judge also found the class members failed to show the nighttime RV ordinance was being applied discriminatorily against homeless San Diegans, and declined to block that law.
A spokesman for the city attorney did not return a request for comment.