December 21, 2006
NO SLEEPING: On Oct. 31, 2006, a posting appeared on Craigslist Humboldt, under a general category, headed "ACLU looking for all cases of Police abuse." The notice beneath it, warts and all, read thusly: "There is a Nov. 30 trial of a person who is hoping to get the ordinances struck down that say homeless can't sleep. These sorts of ordinances have been ruled unconsitutional under the Ninth Circuit's Jones vs. City of Los Angeles, however EPD blatently disregards it (no surprise there); APD & Sheriff non compliant, although to a lesser degree. ACLU is looking to collect a record of all police abuses countywide, so we can establish a pattern which is very important in establishing crediblity, especially in cases regarding police abuse, people with info should email firstname.lastname@example.org."
On Nov. 30 in Courtroom 9 -- a noisy room, dominated by a shuddering Coke machine, in the basement of the Humboldt County Courthouse where people go to beg for leniency from the dad-like traffic court judge and, on occasion, are granted it with a stern reprimand and a chore list -- parties to the case People of the State of California (Plaintiff) vs. Russ Hopf (Defendant) did indeed gather for trial. Interim EPD Chief Murl Harpham was there, along with a couple of other officers, city staff and attorney. And Hopf was there with his attorney Tracy Herrin, and a couple of homeless fellows and other witnesses.
But the trial was postponed: Herrin wanted a court reporter present, an amenity not available in traffic court.
On Dec. 18, the parties to the case again convened at the courthouse, where they had to wait awhile in the lobby for an opening in Judge Christopher Wilson's court (replete with court reporter). Time enough to pore again over Herrin's motion, filed Nov. 14: to declare unconstitutional the city ordinance that bans camping in residential and other areas not designated for camping, and to dismiss the citation that Hopf received March 31 for camping in his van in Cooper's Gulch. "Mr. Hopf is involuntarily homeless in Eureka," read the motion. "There is a chronic and severe gap between the numbers of houseless persons in Eureka and the number of shelter beds available in Eureka at all times. Areas designated for the use of 'camping' do not exist and/or are insufficient." The city, therefore, shouldn't be able to enforce its no-camping code -- it would be cruel and unusual punishment, and thus also a violation of the Eighth Amendment, Herrin wrote.
It was a long wait in the lobby. A woman waiting on some other case sat knitting a fluffy red scarf. Children milled about. A few people stared at the white-flecked gray-tiled floor. Hopf, another homeless man and Herrin clustered on one side of the back-to-back wooden pews, and the city's side -- except Harpham, who sat another pew over, reading paperwork -- on the other. Hopf's homeless friend joked, "Homeless should get a vacation." And, a few minutes later, "Do you think Kermit [Thobaben, of Redwood Community Action Agency and a witness for the defense] would get me a ticket to Mazatlan so I can visit my family?" Then, later, in a serious vein, "We're like lambs. They like to pick on the weak."
Time passed. The parties chatted -- mostly about car thieves. Some dolts one night took Herrin's car for a joyride, apparently. And, once, said Officer Gregory Hill -- he's the one who'd cited Hopf back in March, knocking on one of the van's curtained windows to roust him out for an explanation -- he'd just gone on shift and heard the stolen-car alert. He pulled into traffic -- right behind the stolen car. Easy. Pulled him over. "The guy had had the car less than an hour, and in that time he'd already pulled the woman's stereo -- and sold it -- and filled the car up with gas. So, the woman gets her car back -- without a stereo, but with a full tank of gas." Everybody sniggered. Then Hopf stumped them with a story about remorse, something about a guy who kept stealing things because guilt about prior thefts drove him to it. Perplexed silence followed his anecdote. But it made sense, in a wildly odd way, the same way it makes sense to keep eating more hot peppers because your mouth's already on fire from the first pepper. You can't stop, and it seems to help.
Oh, the trial? It went till noon, unresolved, and was scheduled to resume the next day. But Judge Wilson had seemed skeptical that the issue -- which he said amounted to "a drafting issue" -- could be resolved in his court. "This is probably not the best forum for what is a very important issue" which, he gathered, was "whether the city should go back and redraft [the ordinance]?"
Indeed, a very important issue. Too many homeless, not enough beds, a dearth of campsites and an icy, killing frost crusting over the world these winter nights and early mornings. And, those basic human necessities. Where's a person to sleep? In the bushes, presumably, or in a van if he's lucky enough to have one. Where's a person to poop? Aye, there's the rub (although, it must be noted, Officer Hill testified he noticed no garbage or human feces outside of Hopf's offending van). Stay tuned.
-- Heidi Walters
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