"You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over? Do you happen to know, by any chance?"
--Holden Caulfield, in J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
When I teach 1L criminal law, my preference is to focus not on the sensational cases of serious crime, but on the everyday workings of the system: drugs, property, and various quality of life offenses. As it turns out, teaching the principle of legality, vagueness, and other important basic tenets of criminal legislation becomes apropos and important when using the example of anti-homelessness legislation of various stripes. Many criminal law casebooks include Chicago's ban on loitering and Chicago v. Morales. I like creating a timeline of legislation, showing how cities have consistently tried (and sometimes failed) to find ways to target the poor and get them off the streets. Sit/Lie ordinances are a classic example, as is the latest bout of litigation about this, which involved ordinances that prohibit one from sleeping or living in his or her vehicle.
In Desertrain v. City of Los Angeles, decided a few days ago, the Ninth Circuit tackled a municipal ordinance prohibiting the use of a vehicle “as living quarters either overnight, day-by-day, or otherwise.” The ordinance itself is not new, but it became a convenient enforcement vehicle (pun intended) after an angry "town hall on homelessness" in 2010. As a result of the aggressive enforcement efforts, several folks down on their luck (read: petitioners) tried to craft their behavior to comply with the ordinance as best they understood it: one of them, thinking the ordinance probably applies only to public streets, slept in his car in a church parking lot. Another, in an effort to comply, slept in the street, but kept some items, such as his sleeping bag. Another petitioner, left without work after a head injury, slept in her RV parked in her church. And another one was cited despite not sleeping in his van, just because he stored many items in it.
The officers enforcing the law were not given much instruction. In a memo from 2008 cited in the decision, officers were instructed that “report must describe in detail observations . . . that establish one of the following — (i) overnight occupancy for more than one night or (ii) day-by-day occupancy of three or more days." In another memo, from 2010, officers were told to “adhere to the ‘Four C’s’ philosophy: Commander’s Intent, Constitutional Policing, Community Perspective, and Compassion,” with no further details.
The Ninth circuit found the ordinance unconstitutionally vague, because its articulation left people in serious doubt as to what behavior constitutes "living" in a vehicle. "Is it impermissible to eat food in a vehicle? Is it illegal to keep a sleeping bag? Canned food? Books? What about speaking on a cell phone? Or staying in the car to get out of the rain?" But, of course, as the court knows, middle-class folks talking on their cellphone in the car would not be targeted; the court explicitly says that the law lends itself to arbitrary enforcement and criminalization of the poor.
There are some pretty interesting things going on here. First, what is the relationship between vagueness and the potential for arbitrary enforcement? Yes, miscellaneous so-called quality of life offenses tend to be enforced disproportionately (exclusively!) against the poor. But don't we disproportionally target the poor in enforcing drug offenses, prostitution offenses, property offenses, and even some types of violent offenses? It seems that anti-homelessness bills in all their iterations seem unique to the court, and I think it might be because they are all rather clumsy ways to get around the challenges of prohibiting status rather than criminal behavior. Loitering, sitting on a sidewalk, and sleeping in your car are all things you do when you have nowhere else to go. There seems to be some sort of status/behavior continuum, by which being addicted to drugs is a status one can't help, but being drunk in public is a legitimate offense (even if you have nowhere else to go. Homeless? Don't drink.) Living in your car is vague, but sitting or lying on the sidewalk between certain hours is behavior you can presumably control and therefore a legitimate target of law enforcement. While we can dispute some of these distinctions (I know I do), you could at least make a half-decent argument that there's a free will element, flimsy as it is, that needs to be there to distinguish between a legitimate behavior prohibition and illegitimate prohibition of status.
But there's something else that seems to be going on, and that's a balance of NIMBYism and individual rights. The Ninth Circuit's Judge Kozinsky, who thought that sit-lie ordinances were fine and peachy, describes the motivation of the City of Seattle right at the beginning of his decision: "Seeing the wisdom of preserving the sidewalk as an area for walking along the side of the road," he says, "the City of Seattle passed an ordinance generally prohibiting people from sitting or lying on public sidewalks in certain commercial areas between seven in the morning and nine in the evening." Ostensibly, this is about legislative accuracy - hours defined, places clearly defined, all of which makes the behavior presumably easy to avoid. But the undercurrent is also that a city is right to clear its sidewalks for some of its residents by prohibiting others from blocking the way by sitting on them.
Which begs the question, how are people sleeping in their car a problem? True, the Los Angeles city ordinance, as it is, is vague. But what if the ordinance, in lieu of prohibiting "using a vehicle as living quarters", prohibited "spending the night, between midnight and 5am, inside one's functioning vehicle, no matter where it is parked, for three consecutive days"? That's not all that vague, is it? And yet, we all have a nagging feeling that, despite the clearer articulation of prohibited behavior, some people are going to get arrested and some aren't.
The real question beneath the surface is, why does it matter to the city whether someone down on his or her luck sleeps in their car? Presumably, if someone sleeps in her car, she doesn't get cold and sick; she's not drunk in the street; and she's not otherwise causing mischief or taxing our already scant welfare dollars. The response has got to be some sort of NIMBYist aesthetic distaste, which Judge Kozinsky's decision in Roulette glosses over but never addresses directly. What the architects of this ordinance would really want is for the homeless population to disappear. But because these are real people, they're not going to just vanish like Holden Caulfield's ducks in Central Park. They still have to sleep and eat, and they're going to have to find ways to do it, and going one by one to eliminate these modes of survival, vague or not, arbitrary or not, is cruel and inhumane.
As a brief coda, this case didn't raise any Fourth Amendment issues, but it has always fascinated me how the Fourth Amendment makes both homes and cars into special places with special rules, in opposite ways: homes receive extra protection and cars receive explicitly less protection. Presumably, the consitution protects "people, not places", but what with the return to tresspass theory in Jones, It seems to me that the economic downturn calls for a more sensitive conceptualization of the car and its role in people's lives. What with the scholarly attention to the American cult of homeownership (see here, here, here, and here) we forget that we also have a fairly robust car culture, which impacts urban planning and even globalization. The centrality of the car to one's lifestyle is as American as apple pie. Maybe the downturn has created an important permutation in the cultural role of vehicles, meriting them more constitutional protection than would be justified by a narrow conception of them as vehicles.