(CN) - A ban in Los Angeles against living in a vehicle is too "broad and cryptic," and unfairly targets the homeless, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday.
The federal appeals court found that further enforcement of the city ordinance could lead to absurd results - possibly even mass arrests of RV-driving tourists.
After a 2010 crackdown against people living in their cars in the Venice area of Los Angeles, four homeless citizens challenged the law as unconstitutional. Municipal Code Section 85.02 prohibits the use of a vehicle "as living quarters either overnight, day-by-day, or otherwise."
The city claimed that its enforcement of the code in Venice was about public health and deterring illegal dumping. Opponents, however, argued that the ordinance is so ill-defined and variously interpreted that they were arrested and forced to shell out money to retrieve their vehicles for simply sitting in their car with their possessions.
One plaintiff, Steve Jacobs-Elstein, said police arrested him while he waited in his car, which was filled with his personal belongings, for the opening of a food program at a church.
Chris Taylor, an artist who sells his work on Venice Beach, said that police arrested him because he had a sleeping bag and other possessions in his car, even though he told them that he lived at a shelter in Culver City.
Patricia Warivonchik, a 34-year resident of Venice who lives in a recreational vehicle that she parks legally at a Santa Monica church at night, said police gave her a written warning against living in her vehicle after stopping her for a minor traffic infraction.
U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner ruled on all counts for the defendants: the city of Los Angeles and various members of a police task force responsible for the 2010 Venice crackdown.
Klausner also refused to consider a vagueness challenge that the plaintiffs submitted only after discovering that the police themselves were often confused about the scope of the law.
In a unanimous reversal, an appellate panel ruled Thursday that the trial court should have allowed the plaintiffs to amend their complaint to add the late vagueness argument.
After considering the issue on its own, the panel found that the ordinance was indeed illegally vague because it neglects to define many of the terms that it relies on, including "living quarters" and "otherwise."
"We know that under defendants' enforcement practices sleeping in a vehicle is not required to violate Section 85.02, as Jacobs-Elstein learned, nor is keeping a plethora of belongings required, as Taylor learned," Judge Harry Pregerson wrote for the panel. "But there is no way to know what is required to violate Section 85.02. Instead, Plaintiffs are left guessing as to what behavior would subject them to citation and arrest by an officer. Is it impermissible to eat food in a vehicle? Is it illegal to keep a sleeping bag? Canned food? Books? What about speaking on a cell phone? Or staying in the car to get out of the rain? These are all actions plaintiffs were taking when arrested for violation of the ordinance, all of which are otherwise perfectly legal."
"All in all, this broad and cryptic statute criminalizes innocent behavior, making it impossible for citizens to know how to keep their conduct within the pale," he added.
Such vagueness, along with the absence of a uniform enforcement policy, could let police cite campers and tourists driving through town in an RV, the panel said.
"It is difficult to imagine how anyone loading up his or her car with personal belongings, perhaps to go on a camping trip or to donate household wares to the Salvation Army, and parking briefly on a Los Angeles street, would know if he or she was violating the statute," Pregerson wrote. "What's worse, even avoiding parking does not seem to be sufficient; Plaintiff Warivonchik was not even parked - she was driving her RV through Venice when she was pulled over and issued a warning. So, under the Task Force's expansive reading of this already amorphous statute, any vacationer who drives through Los Angeles in an RV may be violating Section 85.02."
Finally, because police have interpreted the law's scope and power in various ways, it is "incompatible with the concept of an evenhanded administration of the law to the poor and to the rich that is fundamental to a democratic society," the panel found.
"For many homeless persons, their automobile may be their last major possession - the means by which they can look for work and seek social services," Pregerson wrote. "The city of Los Angeles has many options at its disposal to alleviate the plight and suffering of its homeless citizens. Selectively preventing the homeless and the poor from using their vehicles for activities many other citizens also conduct in their cars should not be one of those options."
The Los Angeles City Attorney's office did not immediately return a request for comment.