The Roanoke County Board of Supervisors adopted Code § 13-14 in February 2019, an ordinance that prohibits persons from using automobiles for sleeping, despite the fact that the problem of sleeping in cars is “not widespread” and has cropped up only “occasionally” over the years. In proposing the ordinance, County staff were reportedly concerned that the use of automobiles for sleeping “can have a negative effect on neighborhood aesthetics.” The ordinance specifically provides that it shall be a Class 4 misdemeanor “for any person to use an automobile for sleeping quarters, in place of a residence, hotel or other similar accommodations, within the County.” The ordinance defines “hotel” and “automobile,” but does not define “sleeping” or otherwise limit what kind of “sleeping” violates the ordinance. Under the County Code, a Class 4 misdemeanor is punishable by a fine of up to $250.
In its letter to the Board, The Rutherford Institute warns that courts around the country have not hesitated in finding similar ordinances to be invalid as unduly vague and an arbitrary exercise of government power. For example, an Alabama appeals court struck down an ordinance forbidding sleeping in a car on a public street because it left to police the unfettered discretion of whether the conduct of the person cited was lawful or unlawful. Similarly, a Florida appeals court found an ordinance making it unlawful for a person to “lodge or sleep in or about, any automobile or truck” to be overbroad by criminalizing conduct that does not impinge upon the rights of others. It also found the ordinance unduly vague because it covered a variety of wholly innocent activity, yet left to the police officer’s unbridled discretion whether to enforce the ordinance. Just last year, a federal court held that a city ordinance making it illegal to use public streets or parks for temporary lodging constituted cruel and unusual punishment as applied to homeless persons who had no other shelter available to them. As such, the Eighth Amendment forbids making it criminal to be homeless in a public place.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated.
This press release is also available at www.rutherford.org (Short URL: https://bit.ly/2UkK3cC).