SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Following an emotional four-day trial that raised questions on how a city regarded as an enclave of progressive politics – Berkeley, California – treats its most vulnerable citizens, a federal jury found Friday the city did not target a group of homeless campers for their speech.
“Certainly we’re pleased but not pleased with the circumstances to have this play out in a courtroom,” Berkeley City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said after the verdict was announced.
Williams-Ridley, who had been accused of personally ordering police to target homeless campers for protesting city policies, said the citizens of Berkeley care about and support their homeless neighbors, but “there are rules and requirements we all have to follow.”
City lawyers argued the campers were not targeted for their speech, but rather because they chose to pitch tents in disruptive locations, including on the steps of City Hall, and because of health and safety hazards associated with the encampments.
Before reaching their unanimous verdict, the eight-member jury heard testimony on how Berkeley police cleared the encampments of a politically active group, First They Came For The Homeless, at least eight times between October 2016 and January 2017.
Three plaintiffs – Clark Sullivan, Adam Bredenberg and Benjamin Royer – claimed the city targeted them while ignoring other problematic encampments in the city. Their group organized drug-free encampments in prominent spots across Berkeley to protest the city’s refusal to permit a camp on public property with toilets, hand-washing stations and trash-pickup services, among other demands.
Speaking outside the courtroom, plaintiff Royer said he is afraid the verdict will embolden Berkeley police to resume their alleged pattern of aggressive crackdowns on his group.
“Our camp is going to get hit hard,” said Royer, a 33-year-old man who suffers from severe back pain and uses a wheelchair to get around. “The only thing stopping them was this case.”
Williams-Ridley said the city would “stay consistent” in its approach to enforcing health and safety laws.
The jury of seven women and one man also found the city did not unjustly seize campers’ property without adequately informing them how to retrieve their belongings from a city storage unit. The plaintiffs claimed the city trashed some of their tents, sleeping bags and clothes or stored them in a way that left them drenched from rain and covered in mildew.
Civil rights attorney EmilyRose Johns said she thinks the jury missed a key piece of evidence because one witness was sick and unable to testify. The witness, Jim Hynes – a former assistant to the city manager – was responsible for distributing public notices issued for camp evictions during the time plaintiffs said they were targeted by the city.
Because Hynes could not testify, the city agreed to tell the jury that it could not find records of public notices for camp evictions between Oct. 7, 2016, and Jan. 6, 2017, other than the ones plaintiffs claimed were part of a targeted crackdown.
“The city cannot demonstrate they moved any other encampment during this time period,” Johns said. “I think maybe that wasn’t clear because of the stipulation.”
She said an appeal is an option but no decision has been made.
Last October, the Berkeley City Council passed an ordinance that forbids pitching tents on public property between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. and requires campers keep their property within nine square feet in certain areas, including at a First They Came For The Homeless encampment near the Ashby Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in South Berkeley.
Johns previously denounced the rules as inhumane, saying it makes it harder for disabled homeless people to sleep more than a few hours a night because they can’t quickly pitch or break down tents. She said it would also deny homeless people who work nights the ability to sleep during the day.
Ridley-Williams said the ordinance is being enforced and that the city embarked on a massive outreach campaign earlier this year to encourage “voluntary compliance” with the new requirements.
Berkeley spent nearly $20 million on homeless services in fiscal year 2019, including state, federal and regional grant money, but the city still lacks enough shelter beds to house its estimated 1,000 homeless residents.
Civil rights attorney Dan Siegel, who represents the plaintiffs, said although he is disappointed with the verdict, he believes the trial raised important questions and shed light on the need to address the homelessness crisis nationwide.
“We acknowledged that this is an issue that goes far beyond the city of Berkeley and must be addressed on a national and statewide basis,” Siegel said. “I think it became clear at the trial the city of Berkeley is not doing a better job than anybody else at dealing with these issues.”