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HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF THE U.S. CONSTITUTION, CAPTAIN?

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was found in the July 4th Mission Police Station Weekly Newsletter, which we have reprinted here [with poor grammar intact]. The appended reply was written by the nameless “homeless advocate” in question. Please note that while the Mission Station’s Captain was circumspect in maintaining anonymity for the police officers and the attorney involved in this case, he didn’t extend the same respect to the homeless person who was being charged, even though he reports her charges were dismissed. Assholes like the Captain Goldberg make it pretty hard for this publication to keep SFPD officers in a humane perspective, but we thought we’d share this exchange with our readers to illustrate the palpable disdain SFPD routinely [and officially] displays for homeless peoples’ constitutionally-protected civil rights. c.m.

Mission Police Station Weekly Newsletter

Monday, July 4, 2005

Captain’s Corner

Many of the concerns that come to my attention are related to “quality of life” violations. There is a frustration that the same people are committing the same crimes over and over again. This frustration is shared by your police officers.

One officer took the time to detail her recent experiences in court in response to quality of life violations. Although the information is a bit long, I think you will find the information illuminating as to the problems with the process.

Most quality of life violations are assigned to “Traffic Court” and the officer appeared in Traffic Court B on 6/15 in response to three citations she had issued for the defendant, Julia Marshall. The officer had cited Ms. Marshall for three violations over a 13-month period. The defendant was only now taking care of these citations (one for drinking on the street and two separate incidents of trespassing at a middle school).

As the officer signed in, she noticed that Ms. Marshall’s name appeared 12 times. In addition to the three citations issued by her, Ms. Marshall was contesting nine more citations. There were six SFPD officers waiting in court to hear Ms. Marshall’s protests. One of the citations dated back more than two years.

The clerk read the names of those on the docket, and it was apparent that Ms. Marshall was not present and was represented by a Homeless Advocate Attorney. The District Attorney does not appear in traffic court, and the officers make their own presentations and represent the people.

The Court Commissioner brought court to order and very quickly called one of Ms. Marshall’s citations. Ms. Marshall’s attorney entered into a discussion with the Commissioner and stated that she would not mind waiting until the end to deal with Ms. Marshall’s issues. The Commissioner agreed and Ms. Marshall’s case was heard last. The six police officers were not consulted and waited for the next two and a half hours.

After waiting, Ms. Marshall’s cases were heard. The first officer cited Ms. Marshall for camping in a doorway in the Castro district where the owner had signed and posted a “No Trespassing” sign. The officer presented her case. Ms. Marshall’s attorney argued that Ms. Marshall had not received written notification regarding trespassing in THAT doorway, and that the signed notice in the doorway, specifically saying nobody was to loiter in that doorway, was not enough. Case dismissed.

The next citation was for the trespassing at Everett Middle School. Ms. Marshall’s attorney made the same argument: that the numerous “No Trespassing” signs posted on every door at the school was not sufficient notice to Ms. Marshall. Commissioner Slavit did convict Marshall on one no trespassing violation because the officer had written a prior citation at the same location. That prior citation was written notice. Even though the Commissioner found Ms. Marshall guilty, he stated there would be no fine or other sanction as Ms. Marshall was homeless.

At this point, the Commissioner asked the attorney if there was a way to speed up the process. The attorney advised the Court that Ms. Marshall “had got her citations together” and wanted them taken care of and was “trying to get her life together.” When the Commissioner asked what she meant by this, she responded: “I did not personally do the intake” and was unable to provide any information regarding how Ms. Marshall was “getting her life together.”

The commissioner asked the officers if they had any recent encounters. One officer responded he had cited Ms. Marshall for an open container of alcohol in the Tenderloin last week.

With that, the Commissioner asked Ms. Marshall’s attorney to pick two charges to plead guilty to and he would dismiss the others. The Commissioner went on to say that the two you plead guilty to can be dismissed if Ms. Marshall can show proof of “getting her life together.” The Commissioner asked the attorney when she would be able to make contact with her client. The attorney said it could take two months. Although the Commissioner was surprised at the time needed to follow-up with Ms. Marshall, he allowed the delay.

The officers were dismissed, with a cumulative loss of 18 hours of patrol time—time that could have been spent protecting your neighborhoods. The defendant, Ms. Marshall, never had to appear in court. She simply had to drop off her citations and have an advocate take care of it. Not only was Ms. Marshall not sanctioned for her behavior, but she was not inconvenienced by having to go to court.

The same officer appeared in the same court a few days later. On 06/22/2005, she attended court regarding a defendant, Mr. Figueroa, for a citation she issued to him for being in Mission Playground between 10 PM and 6 AM. The park is closed during those hours, and there are numerous signs posted advising persons of that fact.

The same Commissioner heard the case and Mr. Figueroa was represented by the same attorney. Mr. Figueroa was not present in court. The officer prefaced her opening statement with background information on Mission Playground. She said that the park is used by many young children, and that the Police Department has received numerous complaints regarding people sleeping in the park at night, drinking, urinating, defecating, and littering. The officer also advised the court that after the gardener had been attacked by one of the overnight campers, Park and Rec began locking the gates to the park at 10 PM to keep people out. However, people still made entry by cutting holes in the fence.

The attorney objected to the background information. The Commissioner allowed the officer to continue, but advised the attorney that she should trust the court’s judgment regarding what is relevant.

The attorney argued that the officer did not prove willful intent by Figueroa to disobey the posted sign. The Commissioner agreed and dismissed the case. The officer asked the Commissioner to clarify. Was he saying that even though a person may enter a park via a gate which has a sign clearly posted “Park closed between 10 PM and 6 AM” or if a person enters through a hole in a fence because the gate is locked, that was not sufficient notice. The Commissioner responded “yes.”

The officers at Mission Station continue to work tirelessly on behalf of the community. However, for there to be changes in people’s behavior, there needs to be meaningful prosecution and meaningful sanctions. For that, we need your help and encourage you to let the courts know of your concerns.

August 11, 2005

Captain John Goldberg

630 Valencia St.

San Francisco, CA 94110

Dear Captain Goldberg:

I was dismayed to see the Mission Police Station weekly newsletter of July 4, 2005, which purported to describe the “problems with the [court] process” for citations given to homeless people. The newsletter contained several serious inaccuracies. Equally problematic, the implication running throughout the newsletter was that homeless people should not be entitled to basic protections of our justice system—such as the right to legal representation and application of the rule of law. This type of rhetoric is particularly disturbing coming from the representatives of our government responsible for law enforcement.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) has a long history of legal assistance and advocacy on issues of poverty and homelessness. LCCR provides legal services to homeless people and advocates for City policies that combat homelessness rather than criminalize homeless people. As part of this work, we represent homeless people who are given criminal infraction citations for basic life activities—such as sleeping, drinking, or sitting—that they do in public because they do not have homes in which to legally sleep, drink, or sit. Each of the citations mentioned in your newsletter was related to the accused’s homeless status. The homeless defendants mentioned slept in parks or in doorways because they did not have homes in which to sleep.

Homeless people cannot afford to pay fines for these minor infractions, and so the citations go to warrant and often result in arrests and/or jail time. These arrests and warrants make it more difficult for people to obtain employment, housing, and treatment—exactly the things a homeless person needs to get off the street. Your newsletter expressed frustration that the same people are cited for the same “quality of life” offenses over and over. Homeless people are frustrated by this as well. But the solution is not more fines that people cannot afford to pay. Connecting people with jobs, treatment, and housing is far more likely to end the useless cycle of criminal citations.

Homeless people actively seeking services and trying to resolve past criminal citations should be lauded. Instead, the newsletter mocked one homeless individual for “getting her life together.” The newsletter implied skepticism that J. M., a homeless woman, decided to take care of all her past citations because she wanted to change her life for the better, partly because an attorney spoke for her. It makes little sense to condemn homeless people for taking care of past due warrants rather than ignoring them. Beyond that, the right to counsel is a constitutional guarantee, and it is unacceptable for an official police department newsletter to condemn homeless people for exercising their constitutional rights.

It is particularly problematic that your newsletter’s apparent call to decrease homeless people’s access to justice comes at the same time that police officers are increasing enforcement of “quality of life” offenses against homeless people. For example, last year, there was almost a threefold increase in camping tickets. Again, camping citations do not provide anyone with housing.

The newsletter account was also factually incorrect. To give one example, the newsletter stated that although the citations at issue had been given to J.M. months before the trial date, one officer said he had seen her with an open container in the Tenderloin a week earlier. This is simply not true. I was in court that day, and the officer said he saw J.M. walking in the Tenderloin the week before. He did not say she had an open container, nor that she was involved in any other illegal activity. It is troubling that the prejudice against poor and homeless people is so strong that walking in the Tenderloin is immediately understood as implicating illegal behavior. This type of prejudice, especially as advocated by law enforcement officials, is unacceptable.

It is especially troubling that your newsletter singled out a homeless individual, complete with her name, and publicly described the charges against her, even though most of the charges were dismissed. This account—particularly since parts of it were untrue—was a harmful invasion of J.M.’s privacy.

Through the Coalition on Homelessness, there have been volunteer attorneys representing homeless people on status crimes citations for over ten years. The majority of these citations are dismissed for the simple reason that the tickets are given for conduct that is not, in fact, illegal. For example, police officers give camping tickets to people who have not constructed shelters, which is what the camping ordinance forbids. Trespassing tickets are given even when the ordinance’s specific notice requirements are not met. Homeless people are improperly cited under an ordinance that only applies to property owners who block the sidewalk with garage sales or discarded couches. In other words, homeless people are often cited just because they are homeless, not because they have broken any law.

Court commissioners and judges are bound to apply the laws as written. The state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an individual person is guilty of the charged offense, not that homeless people in general congregate in a certain park or that the area is known for drugs or violent behavior. Your Station’s newsletter insinuates that these constitutional protections should not apply to homeless people, and that it should be easier to convict them of so-called “quality of life” offenses. Homeless people are among the most vulnerable of all United States citizens. There is no excuse for advocating that they be denied constitutional rights, especially when the “crimes” of which they are accused are behaviors such as sleeping or sitting in public.

The Lawyers’ Committee agrees with your Station’s newsletter that it not a wise use of taxpayer funds for dozens of trained law enforcement officers to sit in traffic court for hours each month, trying to secure convictions on tickets that were often improperly issued in the first place. However, the solution is not getting rid of constitutional protections for homeless people or criticizing the court commissioner for applying the laws as written. Instead, we can join some City officials in advocating a “housing and services first” approach to homelessness and can work towards ensuring that this promise is not just empty rhetoric. Offering real assistance to homeless people to get off the street has always been more effective than criminalizing them for living their lives in public view when they have no private place to be.

Thank you for your attention to these issues and for your service to the City of San Francisco. If you or your officers would like to discuss these issues further, please give me a call at 415.543.9444 ex. 222. In addition, if you would like to publish this letter in the next Mission Police Station newsletter, you have my permission to do so. The issues raised in the newsletter are important ones, and San Francisco residents deserve to hear all sides of the story.

Sincerely,

Elisa Della-Piana

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Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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