Court decision may validate "necessity defense" for homeless

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Wed, 3 Mar 1999 16:10:06 -0800 (PST)


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The court decision cited below may help to set a legal precedent.  This
would have profound implications for homeless people faced with police
sweeps, not only in California, but elsewhere:

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/news/archive/1999/03/01/state1703ES
T0039.DTL&type=printable
FWD  Monday, March 1, 1999

APPEALS COURT DECISION COULD MEAN NEW DEFENSES FOR HOMELESS

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A recent state appellate court ruling could give
violators of anti-camping laws a new defense against ordinances that
criminalize behavior of homeless people, legal experts say.

       ``It recognizes a principle of law that has existed for hundreds of
years: People should not be held criminally accountable for things that
they have no choice about,'' said Gary Blasi, a UCLA law professor.

       The January ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana
involved James Warner Eichorn, a homeless Vietnam veteran who was ticketed
in 1993 for sleeping in the Santa Ana Civic Center, the Los Angeles Times
reported Monday.

       The justices overturned a ruling by Orange County Municipal Court
Judge James M. Brooks who said the homeless man violated the city's
anti-camping ordinance prohibiting people from lying down on sidewalks. He
suggested there were other places Eichorn could have napped in his sleeping
bag.

       ``Couldn't your client have found a nice little warm, covered
stairwell on private property to sleep,'' the judge asked Eichorn's
attorneys during the trial. ``Is it a reasonable alternative, just going to
a nearby city, walking a mile or so? ... Stroll on a nice sunny day, find a
cushy spot in Tustin, in a city park and make his home there.''

       Justices disagreed with Brooks, saying Santa Ana couldn't ``solve''
its social problems by sending the homeless to neighboring cities.

       They noted that on the night Eichorn was ticketed, all of Santa
Ana's 300 emergency shelter beds were occupied. There are about 1,500
homeless residents in Santa Ana, an expert testified at the trial.

       The ruling didn't strike down anti-camping ordinances, but can be
cited as precedent.

       ``If the homeless shelters are full, your choices are basically to
trespass, or be on public property, or levitate off the surface of the
Earth,'' Blasi said. ``You have to be someplace.''

       That's good news for people like Robert Byrum, who makes his home on
Santa Ana's streets.

       ``If you get tired, you get tired,'' said Byrum, 48. ``I'll sleep
anywhere I can find to lay down. I've slept on bus benches... in parking
lots.''

       But some community leaders and residents fear they'll see a rise in
their cities' homeless problems. Many favor the anti-camping laws.

       ``It's been a huge change for the better in the environment
downtown,'' said Tim Rush, president of a Santa Ana neighborhood
association. ``Before, you had to carry a stick to beat these people off
you.''

       Santa Ana passed it's anti-camping ordinance in 1992. Since then,
cities including Laguna Beach, Santa Barbara, West Hollywood and Berkeley
have passed similar laws.

       In most cases, the laws were enacted after merchants complained
homeless people were harassing shoppers. The homeless were then restricted
to certain areas of cities.

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