(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court struck down on Thursday a Los Angeles city ordinance that bars people from living in their cars, describing the rule as cryptic and saying that it has been used to discriminate against the poor and homeless.
The ruling overturned a 2011 lower court decision in a lawsuit brought by a group including four homeless people who parked in the city's Venice district and were cited and arrested under the ordinance, which prohibits the use of vehicles as living quarters.
Calling the ban a "broad and cryptic statute" that criminalized innocent behavior, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said it was unconstitutional because it gave insufficient notice of the conduct it penalized and promoted discrimination against the homeless.
"Arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement is exactly what has occurred here," the court said in its ruling.
Tens of thousands of transients are thought to look for somewhere to sleep every night in the city. Many are drawn to bohemian, beachside Venice, and in 2010 the Los Angeles Police Department created the Venice Homelessness Task Force.
The court said its 21 officers used the ordinance, which dates from 1983, to cite and arrest homeless people living in cars, as well as providing them with information about shelters and other social services.
Among the plaintiffs was Steve Jacobs-Elstein, who ran his own legal company before losing his business and home in 2007.
Suffering from anxiety and depression, he was living in his SUV, moving between private parking lots, when he was cited in 2010 by the LAPD as he sat in the car on a Venice street waiting to volunteer at a church soup kitchen. A few weeks later, he was arrested and his car impounded.
Another plaintiff, Patricia Warivonchik, is epileptic after a head injury and cannot work full time. Unable to pay rent but unwilling to leave Venice, her home of 34 years, she was living legally out of her RV in a church parking lot.
While driving through Venice in 2010, the court said, she was stopped by police and given a written warning for violating the vehicle ordinance, and told she could be arrested in the future.
The court said plaintiffs were left guessing as to what behavior would land them in trouble. "Is it impermissible to eat food in a vehicle? Is it illegal to keep a sleeping bag? Canned food? Books? What about speaking on a cell phone? Or staying in the car to get out of the rain?" it asked.
The court said "this broad and cryptic statute criminalizes innocent behavior, making it impossible for citizens to know how to keep their conduct within the pale."
Reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Will Dunham