L.A.'s Ban on Living in Vehicles Struck Down by 9th Circuit

By Brett Snider, Esq. on June 23, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Los Angeles' ban on living in vehicles was struck down by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday, removing a tool used by the city to regulate homeless persons.

The federal appellate court determined that the vague city ordinance was unconstitutional, calling it both "broad and cryptic," reports the Los Angeles Times. This will be the second major victory for homeless persons in the 9th Circuit, following a 2012 case which struck down yet another anti-homeless practice in Los Angeles.

So what was the problem with L.A.'s ban on living in cars?

Vehicle Law Unconstitutionally Vague

When criminal laws or local ordinances are challenged, it isn't uncommon for these ill-conceived laws to be struck down for being unconstitutionally vague. For example, an Indiana law making it illegal to be drunk and "annoying" was struck down in February by a state appellate court.

Striking criminal laws which are so vague or arbitrary that a person of ordinary intelligence cannot tell what exactly is prohibited is called the "void for vagueness" doctrine. This legal principle has always closely tracked with laws affecting the homeless, as many vagrancy laws have been struck down under this doctrine.

Los Angeles' sleeping ban for vehicles prohibited using a vehicle "as living quarters either overnight, day-by-day, or otherwise." As the 9th Circuit pointed out, the L.A. law doesn't define "living quarters" and has no way of defining when "otherwise" happens. Since residents have absolutely no way of knowing what conduct this law actually prohibits (e.g., reading a book in your car, eating in your car, keeping a sleeping bag in your car, etc.), the law is unconstitutionally vague and cannot be enforced, the court held.

Anti-Homelessness Policies Previously Struck Down

L.A. faced a similar defeat in September 2012, when the 9th Circuit ruled that cities cannot seize and destroy unabandoned property that homeless people leave temporarily on sidewalks. The case arose after several incidents of L.A. city employees destroying or seizing mobile shelters and carts that were left on sidewalks. The city claimed it was authorized to do so under a municipal ordinance which prohibited leaving personal property on the sidewalk.

Los Angeles' homeless population is estimated to be anywhere between 36,000 and 54,000, so regulating homeless issues is certainly no simple task. But after this recent 9th Circuit ruling, L.A.'s lawmakers may have to rethink their strategy.

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