Palo Alto to Decide Whether Sleeping in Car Should Result in Jail Sentence

On Monday August 5th, Palo Alto City Council will vote on the controversial "anti-vehicle dweller ordinance," an effort many say criminalizes homelessness. Commentator Aram James is part of a larger effort to stop the ban, and says the ordinance contradicts the history of civil rights values that have been espoused by elected officials. A version of this article originally ran in the Daily Post.

On August 5, 2013 the Palo Alto city council will consider passing an ordinance that would criminalize living in one’s vehicle. If passed and enacted, the anti-vehicle dweller ordinance would carry, upon conviction for its violation, up to 6 months in the county jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

After it appeared that the city had abandoned the proposed ordinance, after a nearly 1 ½ year battle (July 2011 thru November 2012), between homeless activists and the city government a reconfigured city council (beginning in January 2013), with newly elected city council person Liz Kniss, a recently termed out member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, and former mayor and city council member in Palo Alto is leading the charge to yet again attempt to foist this draconian, hate filled legislation down the throats of the good people of this community.

Prosecutions under this proposed ordinance would have extremely adverse consequences on an already overburdened criminal justice system here in Santa Clara County. Given the innocuous nature of the conduct that can trigger charges under this new law, judges, juries and public defenders (who would be charged with defending the bulk of these cases), are all likely to be extraordinarily displeased to see these cases substantially increase their case loads, flood their courtrooms and drain very limited judicial resources that are needed to defend and prosecuted the huge number of serious cases .

Trial of just one such case, in the courts of this county will cost in the neighborhood of $10,000 a day, monies clearly better spent in finding permanent solutions to homelessness.

Each case charged under this law of preventing people with no other choice from living in their car will be defended by raising the very time consuming, complex and expensive “Defense of Necessity.” (See: Defense of Necessity in homeless cases:  &

Other viable defenses to charges brought under this ordinance would include: discriminatory enforcement, outrageous government conduct, and defense by way of juries exercising their inherent power to vote not guilty despite a clear violation of the law -- because the jury concludes i.e., that a particular law is morally repugnant i.e., such as prosecuting member of the homeless and car dwelling community for the most de minimis conduct. For more on Jury Nullification see:

Outside of Palo Alto City Hall is King Plaza, named in January of 2008, in honor of Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King. On a plaque in their honor displayed in King Plaza are the following two quotes, both extraordinarily relevant to the campaign to convince at least five members of the Palo Alto city council to vote in opposition to the proposed ordinance:

"Somewhere we must come to see that social progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless effort and persistent work of dedicated individuals; and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation and irrational emotionalism. We must realize that the time is always ripe to do right." A speech by Martin Luther King from Stanford University in 1967. 

"The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members...a heart of grace and a soul generated by love." Speech at Georgia State University in 2000 by Coretta Scott King.

This year, in April our current city council by a 6-0 vote, gave City Manager James Keene the discretion to raise the banner for gay pride as well as pass a resolution recognizing that 76 percent of voters in the city rejected Proposition 8, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. The Daily News reported on the event and interviewed elected officials. In the piece, current Mayor Greg Scharff is quoted as saying: "This is the civil rights issue of our time...I see no possible argument why people should not be allowed to marry whoever they wish."

I believe the same arguments and logic can be applied to the struggle to end homelessness here in Palo Alto and across this country. It is incontrovertible that the fight to end homelessness, is equally the civil rights issue of our time. To state otherwise requires a total denial of the facts surrounding the current crisis regarding homelessness in this country.

I can think of no greater irony and hypocrisy than for the city of Palo Alto and its city council and government, who pride themselves for honoring the civil rights struggles of the 1960's and the more recent civil rights struggle for gay rights, to now pass an ordinance contrary to every notion of civil rights and equal protection of the law. That ordiance if passed demonizes, marginalizes, and criminalizes the most vulnerable among us -- the unhoused and vehicle dwellers.

In just the last two years Rhode Island and Connecticut have passed Homeless Person's Bill of Rights. Many other states will soon follow with similar legislation...outlawing the very type of ordinance our Palo Alto City Council is threatening to pass and enact.

In the end, the only right, moral and constitutionally appropriate action to take is to table this misguided and mean-spirited proposed vehicle habitation ordinance forever.

Anyone who opposes this ordinance, stands for justice and is unwilling to tolerate a hate law targeted at the most vulnerable members of our community, should attend the city council meeting on Monday August 5th, to speak-out  and voice your opposition to this unconscionable proposed hate law.


About Aram James

Aram James is a former public defender and is a co-founder of the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project.

This article is part of the category: Community 
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I stand with Aram James and all others who oppose this law. This is a law that in 1939 Hilter would have loved. If it pass, Palo Alto would need to have their City Attorney prosecute this in Court, since the District Attornney likely will decline to be in volved in this. Palo Alto would be on then pay the cost of housing and caring for the arrested persons, I believe the Sheriff will decline to accept persons arrested under a law that is itself clearly a "crime against all humanity". Remember, it is not a defense to enfo9rcing such a law to say I was just folllowing orders. The world rejected that defense in 1945. Such a stupid law would direcly effect interstate travel, violate the United States Constitution itself (see the 13 and 14 Amendments), and would require in my opinion immediate responses from all to travel to Palo Alto, using th services of the Interstate System of Highways, and the taking of a needed rest break so as to continue to travel safely using the Interstate System. Any Police Officer attempting to enforce this stupid law under the mentioned set of facts would be themselves directly responsible for damges from their own assets, and subject to criminal action for violating the civil rights of citizens traveling intersstate. My opinion is therefore that each member of the city government that did not speak out against this stupid law should be fired if they are an employee, and resign from office if elcted.

I have always felt quite fortunate to say I grew up in Palo Alto, and have always been proud of my home town. Unfortunately, I now feel shame after hearing about the misguided attempt by some of the city council members to punish and demonize (via this ordinance) those unfortunate in this great city who are least able to mount a defense. Surely there are better options in dealing with the homelessness problem, that now victimizes more of our citizenry then ever before. It is a problem that exists in most of our cities and towns, and all over this country of ours. It is a societal issue that needs to be addressed with compassion, not punitive measures. Those short on compassion should be swayed by the fiscal ramifications of such a misguided ordinance. I agree with Mr. James that the current city council should be condemned for this action.

This is just dumb.homelessness not a crime.the state of homelessness in America,a crime in and of it self.the solution is to stop the causes of homelessness.not penaliZe those that suffer from it.lets put the ones who came up with this ignorance in jail and then fine them for every stupid thought.

I am 100% opposed to this ordinance. I am confused as to what the justification is for banning people from sleeping in their own property! How is it the governments job to tell people how to use their OWN private property??!! What is the difference between sleeping in a house with huge glass windows and sleeping in your car with glass windows? I don't get it??

My mother used to live out of her car. If not in her car, she would have been on the streets for a longer period of time. On the streets she was robbed in broad daylight while trying to sleep on the beach, she came to my house with HUGE blisters on her arms from having to sit in the sun for long periods of time. She could not get anything accomplished to help her in getting out of the mess she was in because she was exhausted from barely being able to sleep on CONCRETE and because of fear for her safety. Why criminalize people for doing something in which they have no other option?? Why not help them instead of criminalizing??? If the concern is drug use or sex or whatever, you already have the right to police those things. Why would you ban sleeping??? If they cannot sleep in their car, some will be on the streets. Then they will get ticketed for being in front of a building or sleeping on a park bench. How do you think they are going to pay that ticket? They presumably do not have employment!! Then because they cannot pay their ticket(s) they will end up in jail, in a system that is ALREADY OVERCROWDED. Who the hell comes up with these proposed bills? I mean honestly I would LOVE to talk to that person. I am so sorry I could not make it to the city council yesterday. This is absolutely ridiciculous and I hope it does not pass. Why not figure out a way to help these people (via drug treatment, mental rehab, job programs, provision of shelter and food, etc) as opposed to hurting them even more and burdening an already burdened criminal justice system and police force? This is just appalling!!! Please do not pass this! Just ignorant is what it is including the people who proposed it. Get it together!

Reading the comments really caused me to register the deep sadness of this action. What century are we in?

There are many things I could say about this Ban that the City Council voted to pass last night. I could talk about the shaky basis for the ordinance, how it won't solve any of the problems people have brought up, how it's unConstitutional, discriminatory, cruel and unnecessary punishment, unfair, and against the teachings of all religions including Christianity and Islam.

But I won't go into all those things--nor the basic unfairness in taking away one of the only resources left to people who've already lost so much.

I will focus on this one aspect of the ordinance only: One of the major rationales of those Council members who spoke on the ordinance last night was that having such a restrictive ordinance and one that required the registration of all car campers (but curiously, not ground campers) has no connection to its supposed corollary--the delivery of "enhanced" services to homeless people.

There seems to be some belief that Palo Alto has this pile of services just DYING to be distributed to homeless people but that the City needs this regressive, repressive ordinance in order to make homeless people take advantage of these services. As IF!

This is a joke of enormous proportions. First of all, we unsheltered types become (if we weren't before) pretty resourceful. I go around to San Jose for a meal, Mountain View for a sleeping bag, Cubberley for a shower---oh, that's right. The people who live around Cubberley who are so concerned about people defecating and urinating in the bushes have succeeded in closing the bathrooms at night and the showers completely.

In any case, we go where we have to to find shelter (not so much in Palo Alto), clothes, food, whatever we need that someone offers.

So forget the idea that we need a wake up call to take advantage of services. We do the best we can to consume the spread out services that are available.

Which brings me to my second point: There ain't that much available. The only shelters I know of that I can go to is the Sunnyvale Armory in the winter and the Hotel de Zink once a year for three months.

I'd love to get a clearer view of the connection between providing services (regardless of the fact that there are nowhere close to adequate shelter services) and taking away the ability to shelter oneself and one's family in one's vehicle---even if there WERE services to offer.

I just cannot make that connection that was clearly so vivid in the minds of the City Council.

Palo Alto Wins MEANEST CITY IN THE NATION AWARD Though I support much of the angry sentiment towards council woman Liz Kniss I am not sure she deserves all the credit for putting Palo Alto on the map as the meanest city in the nation.  Police chief Dennis Burns started the action and clearing the path for him was the city manager, James Keene-the master of double speak-pls review the video of city council woman, Karen Holman trying to get a straight answer from him at the city council meeting.  We should also give Silent-in-the-Face-of-Injustice awards to Molly O'Neal the Pubic Defender of Santa Clara County and Karae Lisle at InnVision.

Special thanks to Aram James for keeping us all informed of Palo Alto's dangerous discriminatory behavior. Repeal the Ban- Doug Minkler Gunn Graduate

Palo Alto used to be a very liberal minded avant-guarde city, totally sympathetic toward social injustices and righting wrong-doings. As a Palo Alto local I have unfortunately seen a shift to the far conservative right and an apathetic regard for the underprivileged and homeless that still live in our once politically correct city. Palo Alto is one of the richest cities per capita in the world. It remains a vanguard technological leader but as far as social injustices, ie. our homeless situation which is escalating, The Palo Alto governing officials have developed a deaf ear and closed minds toward this current crucial Homeless Issue!!

This ordinance is a misguided action & evades the real issues pertaining to homelessness. This does resolve the concerns of those on either side of the issue, but instead creates an additional barrier to both sides. Homelessness is NOT a criminal issue. It is an economic issue and needs to be addressed as such. An issue such as this, where the problem clearly is due to "Lack access to resources" , the City of Palo Alto tries to "resolve" this by further restricting and blocking access to these critical resources that are needed. This further hinders those who are economically & residentialy challenged to become economically stable and to find housing. The Palo Alto City Council therefore IS a root cause of homelessness.

The irony is that, while we have paid tribute to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we have given our community leaders a pass when it comes to the homeless. If Dr. King were here he would lift his full voice against this inhumane situation. Our response to homelessness is usually punitive as the city elite encourages the police to criminalize people who have no place to stay except in their cars or in encampments while the few shelters utilize the lottery system because there are not enough beds for everyone.

Public Defender Molly O'Neal has come out in support of the homeless community. We read this to mean that, if cited or arrested for being without a home, the public defenders will treat this as lack of community support and not a criminal offense. Perhaps we might look at the criminal behavior of the decision makers in Palo Alto. San Jose, please take notice. Betsy

Here's to acknowledge the belated but righteous opposition of Public Defender Molly O'Neill to the “drive 'em out of town” anti-homeless legislation passed recently by the Palo Alto City Council.

Now let's see just how active the PD's are in defending poor people. I guess it's job creation, at the very least, for "public pretenders" as they frequently are.

Vans and cars are the only affordable housing for many low-income folks. Banning it in the name of ending homelessness may funnel more guilt money to poverty pimps, but it's particularly absurd. It also fits in with the "hide out or get out" toxic mentality.

Dressing up the pig with chatter about compassion doesn't change the nasty reality.

The additional closing of bathrooms, showers, and dumpsters and the night-time shuttering of Cubberley and the new curfews on other public buildings intensify the brutality by expanding the attack on homeless people to those without vehicles as well.

The estimated cost of a courtroom for a day's trial is $10,000 according to one former Public Defender I've spoken with.

If the Public Defenders (often plea-bargaining Public Pretenders) really want to push back against this abusive new attack on the homeless, They'll sharpen up their Necessity Defenses. They'll talk to fellow attorneys about filing an Injunction to stop this nonsense before it reaches first base. They'll prepare for Constitutional arguments in each and every case, rather than encouraging their clients to plead out--as happens overwhelmingly.

What will Ms. O'Neill's posture be here? Perhaps friendly voices in the community can write her and the newspapers to let them know that this struggle has just begun.

What's really needed is organizing community support for defendants who insist on trials, regular monitoring of the police, and posting on line of videos of police harassing the poor in the name of "law and order".

I'd like to take issue with one point made above. Jynelle La Pointe refers to the proponents of The Dreaded Ordinance as "brought up wrong."

Unfortunately, it's even more bizarre than that, at least to me. I don't believe any one of the members of the City Council was brought up to act in the irrational ways they have. I venture to say that not one of them--in their homes or religious educations or in their regular schooling--were ever taught to be harsh to the homeless. To the contrary, every religion I know of teaches what Martin Luther King taught--how you treat the members who have the least says the most about a community and to be compassionate to those in need..

Now, sadly--but hopefully only temporarily--Palo Alto is casting its lot with those who would build higher walls, harsher prisons, and greater barriers to the free interactions between people that have made this country so great and Silicon Valley so productive.

Many good citizens of Palo Alto are saddened, embarrassed, and stymied.

Let me assure those who are concerned that there are legal remedies afoot. The Dreaded, Vicious, Draconian, Very UN-Palo Alto Ordinance will not stand.

It is not the will of the good citizens who worked and waited for years to build the Opportunity Center, who extend personal and public kindnesses to those less fortunate.

It is not in keeping with a community that requires high school students to put in time helping in a community service organization before they graduate.

It will not stand.

Hi Robert Norse,

What can I have written a truly remarkable letter/post...hitting all the necessary pressure points, the City of Palo Alto...the lame...for the most part, city council...and a Public Defender...who has finally stepped from behind her curtain with a veiled threat to be a real defender of all the public, including the unhoused.

Now, of course the old saying goes, “talk is cheap"....will Public Defender Molly O'Neal set up a special unit (like a sex crime defender unit, homicide defense team, etc.), that specializes in nothing but defending all cases related to criminalizing the homeless?

Given the crisis, tipping point, in all issues related to homelessness and poverty...nothing less is acceptable. And let’s not forget, that the public defender’s office works for us... not the other way around.


I too am 100% against the VHO (vehicle habitation ordinance). I'm one of those directly effected as I live in my RV parked on a side street of Palo Alto. I've lived in Palo Alto over half my life and now am threatened with jail, fines and loss of what remaining property I possess just because now I'm poor and homeless ,living in a vehicle. I don't see how those 7 members of the City Council can sleep at night. This is a heartless cruel law.

This step less seems to be protective then criminal. Is it a crime to be poor, is it a crime to be homeless, is it a crime to be unable to afford to have a home. We should all respect the basic human rights of an individual. If they are so concern about this matter they should first provide homes to those who don't have one and then ban it. It seems to be unfair with the poor people if such ordinance is passed the human right people should intervene in this matter as soon as possible.

This is a sign that that a free market in property and housing is a failure--there must be absolute, inflexible ceilings to rents and to the selling price of properties. Our system of private property rights is the problem. Jail a few speculators and landlords to start. Displacement is more wrong than the state regulating or even siezing property without compensation.

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