This week, a homeless San Diego man, Richard Stevenson, was sentenced to two years probation and ordered to stay away from where he had pitched a tent on a city street in downtown San Diego earlier this year. He was found guilty of two counts of illegal lodging and encroachment by a 12-person jury. It took a city attorney, police officer, public defender, activist, and a judge to get him a spot in the homeless shelter.
Richard Stevenson’s case highlights the enormous amounts of resources that go into tackling San Diego’s homelessness problem. Stevenson was arrested April 5, at 5:45 a.m, 15 minutes after the city policy allowing people to sleep in public ended. Due to the state’s housing crisis, homelessness is becoming a bigger and bigger problem, with the city criminalizing homelessness with statutes intended to address nuisances and trash, and other seemingly innocuous laws.
San Diego has been sued before for excessive enforcement of the state’s illegal lodging law and now faces another class action for ticketing and arresting people living on the street. According to a 2015 San Diego Police Department training bulletin on illegal lodging, officers are advised to only enforce illegal lodging in areas where they have received complaints.
It has been reported that most people who show up for their court dates plead guilty and are sentenced to probation. Stevenson decided to fight the charges and was represented by a public defender.
According to a study being released this week by the UC Berkeley School of Law Policy Advocacy Clinic, 58 California cities have enacted hundreds of new laws since 1990 that target or disproportionately affect homeless people.
CA Penal Code § 647(e) makes if a crime to lodge “in any building, structure, vehicle, or place, whether public or private, without the permission of the owner or person entitled to the possession or in control of it.” This can result for having a citation (ticket) issued to you for doing something like sleeping on a park bench or the street, or pitching a tent on public property.
Illegal lodging/camping tickets are misdemeanors that are punishable by six months imprisonment or a $1,000 fine.
In some cases, homeless people can be arrested for trespassing, if they unknowingly enter private property (such as a park that may be privately owned by a foundation, or trust). See CA Penal Code § 602. However, if you did not “occupy” the property (i.e. you were just passing through briefly), you have not interfered with the property owner’s property and have a legal defense to the crime of trespass. Continue reading