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City Council Studies Court Homeless Ruling
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Riverbank City Manager Sean Scully leads a presentation at the recent council meeting, discussing the impact a district court decision will have on how cities and towns deal with homeless issues. Ric McGinnis/The News

Riverbank City Manager Sean Scully made a special presentation to the city council at its regular Oct. 23 meeting, describing the effects of a recent court decision on how Riverbank manages the homeless situation.

He said the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision on the matter.

Scully described the background on the case.

It was originally filed in 2009, he said, and “centered around a challenge to a City of Boise anti-camping law, which prohibited sleeping or camping in public spaces (sidewalks, parks, streets etc.) without permission.”

A group of homeless residents challenged the ordinance and the case made its way through the court system.

The case, Martin vs. Boise, was to consider whether the enforcement of an ordinance regulating use of public parks by homeless people violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

“More specifically,” he said, “the court considered whether the Eighth Amendment would bar the enforcement of the ordinance when no suitable alternatives for shelter exist.”

Scully reported that the court found “that the Eighth Amendment does prohibit the enforcement of these types of ordinances in specific circumstances.” He said the opinion states that (among other things) “the Eighth Amendment placed substantive limits on what governments may criminalize.”

He said that Circuit Court Judge Marsha Berzon stated in her opinion, “As a result, just as the state may not criminalize the state of being ‘homeless in public places,’ the state ‘may not criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence’ of being homeless — namely sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets.”

“However,” she said, “the ruling would not apply to those who have access to shelter (whether that be a home or a shelter they can access).”

Scully noted several “takeaways and details” of the matter.

He said the decision puts law enforcement in uncertain territory with regard to enforcing these types of laws. It does not appear to prohibit continued enforcement of trespassing on private property laws by officers.

And he said the decision does not directly require communities to build homeless shelters. Communities may look at opportunities to provide reasonable alternatives to public camping, he noted.

He also pointed out that it has been reported that the City of Boise will appeal the decision to the full panel court of the Ninth District Circuit. Until that time, the decision stands, he said.

Having said all that, he pointed to implications of the decision for Riverbank.

Scully said that, technically, the City of Riverbank does not have an anti-camping ordinance. Instead, the city’s parks all operate under article 94.03 of the Riverbank Municipal Code. It states that “parks open at 6:00 a.m. and stay open until 1 hour after dusk. It is a violation to be in the park after normal hours.”

He continued, “While this is not technically a ‘no camping’ ordinance, it is unclear whether the court interpretation would expand to include ordinances like this that place similar limits (albeit for different reasons) on the use of public space when viewed as a mechanism to deter camping within public space.”

He pointed out that, “although Riverbank has a variety of different supportive and affordable housing, currently, there are no shelter type services in Riverbank, and shelter services countywide are limited and impacted currently.”

He said the court ruling prompted several topics for discussion.

They included educating the public of the decision, “especially since there is a possibility of increased camping in Riverbank.”

The council talked about alternatives for shelter, whether on public property, at specific park locations, in public or private partnerships, shelters, and future housing options.

He pointed out there should be some policy considerations regarding code amendments.

Finally, he urged continued “coordination and cooperation with Stanislaus County and other local jurisdictions on solutions to affect change in homelessness rates in our region.”

The Mayor and council also noted the recent decision by the City of Modesto to direct their homeless population to one park in town.

Mayor O’Brien pointed out a grant funded project being tried in Patterson, where a shelter is being organized. He said the company working on it was interested in bringing a similar program to Riverbank in the future.