Judge OKs plan to move homeless camp tainted by fecal matter | Courthouse News Service
Monday, November 27, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Judge OKs plan to move homeless camp tainted by fecal matter

The recent arrest of a journalist covering homelessness at a public park in Sausalito has drawn scrutiny of the city’s policing practices, but a federal judge saw no cause for imposing sanctions against the city.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Despite claims that a Bay Area city ignored reports of fecal contamination at a homeless camp and allowed police to violate civil rights, a federal judge on Thursday refused to levy sanctions against the city and approved its plan to relocate an encampment.

“If the judge rules the city should not be held in contempt, it’s basically a stamp of approval for the city’s conduct,” Anthony Prince, a lawyer for homeless campers, objected in a video-conference hearing Thursday after U.S. District Judge Edward Chen ruled from the bench.

Prince had asked the court to impose sanctions on the wealthy bayside town of Sausalito for failing to replace toilets and sinks as promised at Marinship Park, where a homeless camp was relocated in June under the terms of a court order issued by Judge Chen. About 40 to 50 people now reside at the park, according to Prince.

The city recently made headlines in the local press after police officers on Nov. 30 arrested a veteran photojournalist, Jeremy Portje, who was filming at the site for a documentary about homelessness in Marin County. Press advocacy groups, including the First Amendment Coalition and Society of Professional Journalists, have warned that the arrest may have violated multiple state and federal laws that protect reporters and their material from being seized by police.

The city’s mayor, Jill Hoffman, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but she told the Marin Independent Journal this week that Portje interfered with police activity and injured a police officer.

In court Thursday, Prince insisted the city’s failure to provide adequate sanitation facilities coupled with a “bomb cyclone” storm that hit the Bay Area in late October likely tainted Marinship Park with fecal matter. The city claims the campers deliberately contaminated the site by stuffing towels and plastic bags in toilets, causing sewage to overflow.

The Sausalito/Marin County Chapter of the California Homeless Union sued the city in February seeking to block a daytime camping ban and impending removal of a homeless camp where about 20 people resided at Dunphy Park, a shoreline public space in the city’s downtown district.

Judge Chen temporarily halted the removal of campers from the park in March, finding it could endanger public health by causing campers to disperse and potentially spread the Covid-19 virus.

Chen later granted the city’s request in May to modify his prior order and relocate campers to another space, Marinship Park, despite objections that the site would expose campers to air contaminants from nearby boat-crushing operations. The judge found a lack of evidence to support claims of harmful air quality at the site.

On Nov. 4, the homeless union filed a motion for sanctions against the city for allegedly breaching its duty to keep residents safe and failing to provide adequate sanitation facilities at Marinship Park. Campers also complained that a civilian police employee, who has since been placed on leave, threw a large rock at a female camper and that two police officers refused to accept a complaint about the incident.

One camper, Robbie Powelson, accused a police officer of using excessive force to arrest him on Nov. 23 after he and other campers pitched tents in front of City Hall to protest “the mistreatment of unhoused people.” In written testimony, Powelson said officer Thomas Georges grabbed him by the throat and constricted his windpipe before he and another woman were arrested.

The campers further argue that the city is removing campers’ tents and belongings during the day in violation of Chen’s order barring enforcement of a daytime camping ban.

The city claims the campers interfered with efforts to clean and clear the park, including by dismantling and stealing traffic barriers placed in a parking lot to provide safe spot for tent camping after ground contamination was detected at the site. The city further complains residents are illegally using a storage shed as a residence and that one resident published the mayor’s home address and encouraged protestors to camp outside her home on Thanksgiving Day.

In response to the campers’ motion for sanctions, the city asked the judge to require campers follow a code of conduct.

On Thursday, Judge Chen said he was “not inclined to get into a micromanagement-kind-of order about police conduct or conduct of the campers.”

Prince argued that the city should be held in contempt for failing to provide a safe place for campers as required under the terms of Judge Chen’s May 26 modified injunction. Chen denied the request, finding no evidence that the city willfully disregarded the court’s order.

Prince also complained that the city ignored campers’ concerns about fecal contamination at the park for weeks, even after it was presented independent test results showing unsafe levels of bacteria. The city later conducted its own soil tests and on Nov. 19 announced plans to move campers to tennis courts on the same site.

“Moving the encampment to the tennis court is a safe move,” attorney Arthur Friedman of Sheppard Mullin, who represents the city, told Judge Chen.

Campers objected to the relocation plan and asked Chen to instead ban enforcement of the city’s nighttime camping ban so homeless people could set up tents in other parks and areas of the city that are not contaminated.

Prince said cracks in the pavement of the tennis courts allow toxic soil and water to rise to the surface.

Friedman replied that 39 elevated platforms for tents rise above the surface of the tennis courts and that water can be easily removed from the surface with a squeegee. The city also purchased 53 tents that will be made available to homeless campers. In all, the city says it has spent more than $830,000 dealing with homeless encampments, but it did not specify a time period in which that money was spent.

At the end of Thursday’s hearing, Chen granted the city’s request to move campers to the tennis courts and denied the homeless union’s request to temporarily block enforcement of the city’s nighttime camping ban.

Judge Chen told both sides to work with U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Illman to reach a compromise on other disputes, including a potential code of conduct for campers and protocols for investigating contamination and cleaning up the site.

Follow @NicholasIovino
Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Health, Regional

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.