Legal community blasts city over homelessness
By Cecily Hastings
In late June, Mayor Darrell Steinberg received a letter from Michael Bowman, presiding judge at Sacramento Superior Court. The message was clear. Homeless conditions surrounding court facilities at 720 Ninth St. prevented justice from being served.
Bowman cited the disheartening environment and numerous encounters between unsheltered people and members of the public who need to be in court, including court employees.
“These daily incidents include, but are not limited to, physical and verbal assault, public sex acts, open fires, nudity, urinating and defecating on walkways,” Bowman wrote. “Court security removes unsheltered individuals, who have no business with the court, from the main courthouse daily and our facilities team must regularly remove feces and other waste from our entryways and grounds.”
Bowman said each week, the court processes thousands of criminal cases and holds hundreds of civil hearings, as well as family law and unlawful detainer trials. He noted more than 1,000 people use the court’s self-help and other services each week.
“The court’s responsibility is access to justice. And yet, each day, there is growing concern that the conditions surrounding our facilities prevent just that,” Bowman wrote. “When coming to court is a trial itself for victims, witnesses or even jurors, access to justice is threatened. So, too, is public service when our employees’ fear for their own safety prevents them from leaving our buildings to go for a walk or supporting local businesses by having lunch with a colleague or shopping the farmers market.”
Bowman’s plea: Step up police presence near the courthouse, help protect the 416 Downtown employees and enforce code violations.
“The presiding judge and the district attorney are right,” Steinberg said in a statement. “I’m working with the city manager to open up the Miller Park safe camping no later than two weeks from now. The first priority will be to address the encampments surrounding the DA’s office and the courthouse. Those areas will be cleaned.”
Sacramento District Attorney Thien Ho sent a letter to District 4 City Council Member Katie Valenzuela, whose responsibilities cover Downtown. Ho asked Valenzuela to address critical public safety concerns around the courthouse and enforce city ordinances.
“Unfortunately, significant public safety concerns are affecting the public, district attorney employees, jurors called to fulfill their civic duty, defendants appearing on their cases, and victims of crime seeking justice,” Ho wrote.
“It should never be illegal to be homeless,” Ho said. “But just because you’re unsheltered doesn’t mean that you can break the law.”
Ho cited several lawsuits where cities were successfully sued for failing to abate a public nuisance caused by homelessness. Phoenix recently lost a lawsuit regarding illegal camping. Portland settled a suit related to tents blocking sidewalks and breaking disability access laws.
Ho’s letter said Martin v. City of Boise has been incorrectly interpreted by city officials.
“When these issues in the Downtown area have been raised by members of the public, some in elected positions point the finger of responsibility to others or misinterpret legal precedent by citing Martin v. City of Boise, as an excuse not to enforce the law or delay enforcement of city ordinances and codes while waiting for increased shelter beds,” he wrote.
“However, Martin does not suggest that unsheltered individuals are immunized from law enforcement in any capacity, nor does it allow for the city to ignore the problems in a way that creates a public nuisance.”
Ho said, “I want the City Council to pass a resolution that mandates the enforcement of city code and ordinances. What the city has been doing up to this point is clearly not working.”
The district attorney didn’t rule out suing the city for lack of enforcement. “I have the authority to prosecute criminally and civilly, so we’ll just have to see,” he said. “Nothing is off the table.”
Complaints about dangerous encampments are not limited to the courthouse area. Similar conditions appear all over Downtown. Sadly, visitors, residents and small business owners deal with this every day.
I took a visitor from Tucson on a tour. She was stunned to see tent encampments and trash lining J Street around City Hall, the old post office and library, county offices and courthouse.
“The responsibility to enforce and prosecute Sacramento city ordinances and code violations rests squarely upon the City of Sacramento and the city attorney’s office,” Ho concluded in his letter to Valenzuela.
He wrote, “The proliferation of encampments on Downtown streets has closed businesses, endangered people’s safety and is slamming the door of justice on those that need it most. Our Sacramento County residents do not want to come Downtown to patronize our businesses and perform the duties we need and require them to fulfill.”
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Cecily Hastings can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram: @insidesacramento.