By William Safford
On June 19, 2014, a federal court of appeals struck down a Los Angeles city ordinance which criminalized vehicle dwelling. The court held that the law, which banned the use of a vehicle as “living quarters”, was unconstitutionally vague and subject to arbitrary, discriminatory enforcement. This may seem like a Los Angeles problem, but to those immersed in Peninsula politics, it sounds eerily familiar.
Unconstitutional vagueness is a funny concept. It sounds like a linguistic problem – tighten up the language and the law will be fine. Yet, this decision recognizes that laws cannot be fundamentally unclear. If you and I cannot tell what is illegal, and neither can the police, then how can enforcement ever be reasonable? The answer, said the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, is that it cannot. If the police arbitrarily decide who to enforce against, then there is no equality of justice, and the law becomes reminiscent of “English feudal poor laws designed to prevent the physical movement and economic ascension of the lower class.”
Why is this a Palo Alto issue? Because the Palo Alto vehicle habitation ordinance (VHO) is identical in every important way. Both laws criminalize living in a car, but leave important questions wide open. The Palo Alto law attempts to define “human habitation” as “the use of a vehicle for a dwelling place, including but not limited to, sleeping, eating or resting”, but if anything, this just makes things less clear. Continue reading
Recently, De-Bug’s ACJP was invited to share, connect, and build with some great legal advocates in New York: the New York Federal Defender’s Office, the Bronx Defenders, and the New York Federal Criminal Defense Bar. We were honored to share our work from the Westcoast, and see how our approach to transforming the courts can be interpreted, and woven into the already tremendous advocacy happening in New York. We started with a presentation, training, and discussion with the Bronx Defenders. We discussed our methodology of community organizing, and given that they are known for the concept of “holistic defense”, we talked about our style of a term we are called “participatory defense.” We got to brainstorm and dialogue with their organizers who are spearheading campaigns to protect the rights of the community. We also did a workshop on our social biography video model. At the New York Federal Defender’s Office, we gave a day long interactive instructional training on how to produce social biography videos to their team of attorneys, investigators, and social workers. They took right to it, and we are looking forward to see them produce social biography videos to reduce sentences and charges. Our final day was a presentation to other federal defenders — both public and private — on the process and value of social biography videos. It was an amazing trip, and we look forward to building more collaborations that ultimately are about keeping families together, transforming the courts, and challenging mass incarceration! Here are some flix:
Presenting at the Bronx Defenders.
Talking organizing with the Bronx Defenders.
NY Federal Defenders working on producing a mock social bio video.
Presenting at criminal defense bar convening.