City Cannot Prohibit ‘Living’ in Vehicles

In Desertrain v. City of Los Angeles (2014)  ___ F.3d ___ (2014 WL 2766541), a City of Los Angeles ("City") ordinance prohibiting the use of vehicles for habitation was held to violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The ordinance, Los Angeles Municipal Code section 85.02 ("Section 85.02"), prohibited the use of a vehicle, on a public street, as "living quarters", and was enforced by the Venice Homelessness Task Force ("Task Force").


Four plaintiffs brought suit against the City for violation of their civil rights after being targeted by the Task Force for violations of Section 85.02.  Three of the plaintiffs stated that they were not sleeping in their vehicles at the time they were cited, but were told by officers that Section 85.02 prevented more than just sleeping in vehicles. The City alleged that the three plaintiffs were using the vehicles for "living quarters", because they had bedding, food, reading material, portable radios, clothing, or bottled water in their vehicles.

Plaintiffs suit challenged Section 85.02 under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, the California Constitution, and other state and federal statutes. The Fourteenth Amendment claim alleged that Section 85.02 was unconstitutionally vague and thus violated due process. The vagueness claim was based on late discovered evidence suggesting that the City's police department had inconsistent and incompatible policies regarding what constitute a violation of Section 85.02. The District Court did not address plaintiffs' vagueness claims.


The Ninth District found that the District Court had abused its discretion in refusing to consider the plaintiffs' late raised claim for unconstitutional vagueness, in part because the delay in bringing the claim was a result of defendants' late disclosure of evidence. The Court determined that there was no evidence of bad faith, no undue delay in bringing the request, no prejudice to the defendants, and that therefore no reason not to allow plaintiffs to amend their complaint.

The Court then considered the vagueness claim in its merits, finding that Section 85.02 was unconstitutionally vague. It is settled law that a criminal statute cannot require the public to risk life, liberty, and property while speculating as to the meaning of the law. Yet, the Court found speculation was what was required in this case.  The Ninth District found that Section 85.02 provided no guidance as to what conduct was prohibited, and that term "living quarters" was too non-specific to give meaningful guidance to those subject to the law. The Court noted that it was clear that the ordinance covered more than simply sleeping in a vehicle. But it was impossible to discern what else may constitute a violation.

The Court further noted that Section 85.02 appeared to implicate innocent behavior. The Court speculated whether eating in a vehicle, keeping a sleeping bag in a vehicle, reading a book in vehicle, or staying in a car to get out of the rain would constitute a violation under the ordinance. [T]his broad and cryptic statute criminalizes innocent behavior, making it impossible for citizens to know how to keep their conduct with the pale."

The Court also found that the ordinance encouraged arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement that targeted the homeless.  It noted that the ordinance was broad enough to apply to anyone who parked to eat their lunch in their vehicle, but was only applied to the homeless as a form of selective enforcement. For all of these reasons, the Court found that the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague and thus violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

What This Means To You

This case serves as a reminder that agencies must carefully craft ordinances that prohibit certain behavior, which can be more difficult to craft than those that regulate conditions; and must ensure that such ordinances are clearly written to provide guidance to both those subject to, and those enforcing, the ordinance. Ordinances that do not clearly define the scope of the prohibited conduct, or adequate guidelines for enforcement, may be found unconstitutionally vague.


If you have any questions concerning this Legal Alert, please contact the following from our office, or the attorney with whom you normally consult.

Maggie W. Stern or Mona G. Ebrahimi | 916.321.4500