Here’s what a law passed by the City of Los Angeles in 1983 says:

No person shall use a vehicle parked or standing upon any City street, or upon any parking lot owned by the City of Los Angeles and under the control of the City of Los Angeles or under control of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, as living quarters either overnight, day-by-day, or otherwise.

While the wording of the law may seem simple (regardless of how one might feel about it), a trio of circuit judges from the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday that the description of what behavior violates the law is so unclear that it was being used by police to (surprise!) harass homeless people who believed they were actually complying with the law.

The ruling (readable here) centers on the behavior of police in Venice Beach, a place with quite a few homeless people. Following complaints in 2010 about all the homeless folks around, police started cracking down, using this 1983 law as the tool. But as Judge Harry Pregerson noted in the ruling, the police were using just the existence of personal property or food in a vehicle as evidence that the law was being violated and even threatening homeless people who were sleeping in their vehicles on private property, like church parking lots, with the owner’s permission. One homeless plaintiff in the lawsuit had to resort to sleeping on a public sidewalk (which is legal) rather than in his car in order to comply with the law. He nevertheless was arrested and his vehicle impounded when police found him sitting in his car to avoid the rain. One woman was pulled over and cited for violating the law while actually driving her vehicle through Venice.

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