Indefensible: How San Francisco’s District Attorney Wastes Tax Money Trampling Rights of the Poor
On May 27, Joseph Smith, his wife Terrie Anderson and about a dozen other homeless San Francisco residents were awakened at 5 a.m. by police officers who ticketed them for sleeping on Hippie Hill at Golden Gate Park.
Joe and his companions have pockets full of citations. When asked how many times he has been cited, he said, “I don’t have enough fingers to count.” Joe then estimated getting ticketed at least 30 times since returning to San Francisco in August 2008.
In what has become an almost-daily ritual, the cops issue the tickets with Joe’s information and the charge — sleeping in a public park between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. — already written and waiting for his signature. With the formalities dispensed, Joe went back to his sleeping spot.
When Street Sheet informed Joe that his court case scheduled the previous day had been dismissed, he was pleased. The cop didn’t bother showing up for the case. That’s typical of others against the city’s homeless citizenry.
What’s unusual to those outside the realms of homelessness and law enforcement is the venue where cases like Joe’s are tried. It was on the docket for traffic court.
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May 26, 1:30 p.m. Sarah Barnes, a staff attorney from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, arrived at Traffic Court A in the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St. The small room is filled with people who were cited and eventually dismissed for traffic violations in some of the 300 cases scheduled.
Wearing a dark business suit and a professional demeanor, Sarah fits the image of a young, idealistic advocate for the indigent. She sits in contrast with the more casually attired defendants who are inconvenienced by disputing their own tickets. But Sarah was there with her LCCR colleagues to defend Joe and five other homeless people from such infractions as public sleeping, peddling without a permit and having an open container.
When the clerk called the defendants’ names, Sarah answered “counsel” on behalf of her absent clients. About half the cases — including five of Sarah’s six cases — were thrown out for lack of a present arresting officer. Her sixth was continued for one month because Sarah didn’t receive the police report until the cop on record just gave it to her upon arrival. Fortunately, Joe’s case was one of the dismissals.
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If lawyering up for such minor offenses sounds unusual, at least it could be explained that the city does likewise — the District Attorney’s office sends its own lawyers to traffic court and tries the cases. For misdemeanors like driving on a suspended license, the DA doesn’t even bother.
But the DA’s office assigned five people — including one attorney, one clerk who just graduated law school and three law school students — to prosecute homeless people for status offenses, even in the face of citywide budget cuts. Six staff members in the misdemeanor division were already felled by the budget ax.
Lawyers from the Public Defender’s office are also endangered by layoffs dictated by an across-the-board 25 percent cut. The city must also provide representation for those can’t afford it — a mandate from the U.S. and California Constitutions. But the PD handles misdemeanors and felonies, not infractions.
Citing that “felony cases were piling up” in an office “already operating beyond our capacity,” Kamala Harris wrote to Mayor Gavin Newsom in March warning of the consequences of impending layoffs. “We urge you to refrain from forcing our streets to be surrendered to criminals,” she wrote.
Yet for all Harris’ dire warnings of felons amok, the DA’s office added staff — including one attorney, one clerk who just graduated law school and three law school students — to prosecute infractions.
Lest city streets fall to scofflaws who commit such infractions as illegal camping, panhandling and public urination, how does the DA justify tax money spent in pursuit of such cases?
It can’t, according to homeless advocacy groups like LCCR and the Coalition on Homelessness. They collect homeless people’s citations in drop-ins and from outreach teams.
“Prosecution is targeted,” they wrote in a joint report. Only those infractions committed as a result of someone’s poverty status and not by anyone else are tried by the DA’s office.
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Joseph Smith, a native of Millville, New Jersey, camps out at Hippie Hill. Police and park rangers circle Golden Gate Park in their squad cars and roust people sleeping by the path near the tennis courts. Joe ensconced himself under a group of holly trees. He thought he was safe because the area was unreachable by car. But the cops walked out of their cars and ticketed him any way.
Joe sports curly, dark blond hair and a graying beard that makes him look older than his 40 years. He ran away to San Francisco in the early 1980s only to find his errant father deceased. He later returned to the city as as a young adult, then moved to Sacramento.
Joe found employment as a sheet metal worker, then as a heating and cooling technician at McClellan Air Force Base, which closed in 2001. He also met Terrie Anderson and together they have a daughter, who is now 14 and living with Terrie’s sister in Elk Grove, California.
Joe and Terrie lived in the homeless encampment by American River. Terrie’s chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder was irritated by the Sacramento smog; five times, she stopped breathing. Last year, they moved back to San Francisco for the better air quality.
Joe recalls a rainy day where cops ordered Joe to move his tarp-covered belongings away from the Sharon Arts Studio. While complying, Joe stopped to talk to a friend. Annoyed by the brief delay, the cops handcuffed Joe, Terrie and two others on the ground. They told Joe the charge was “excessive camping,” or erecting a structure.
“The sheriff’s department thought it was fucking hilarious,” Joe said.
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The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights assists and represents people pro bono in cases related to race, poverty and immigration. Sarah Barnes supervises homeless cases for her organization.
Over 30 city and state codes are prosecuted against homeless people. Based on the citations forwarded by the Coalition, the LCCR believes the DA’s office tries about 3,000 homeless traffic cases per year. They are also convinced the number of this year’s prosecutions are outpacing last year’s.
Sarah asked the DA’s office, under California Public Records Act and San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance requests, how much money, manpower and hours are dedicated to trying traffic court cases.
In his response, Paul Henderson, the DA’s chief administrator, said they don’t keep such records. He added that in the absence of such a document, “the department has no duty to create or recreate one.”
Sarah said she was skeptical about the lack of paperwork in the DA’s office or, for that matter, any other public agency.
“If that’s true, then that’s really poor policy,” she said.
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Joe sees sleeping in the park as his only viable option. Shelter stays are too short. The shelters also segregate by gender, and Joe doesn’t want to be separated from his wife, given her COPD and his prostate and pancreatic cancers.
Joe recalls more poverty services being available 20 years ago — he could survive on general assistance, food stamps and Medi-Cal, and find affordable housing. Now, the allotment of services is smaller and housing options are fewer and more costly.
“If I just get a damn edge, I could get out of here,” he said. “I’m kind of lost in space here.”
Constant police encounters put Joe on a first-name basis with most cops. It also taught Joe how to recognize where a cop is stationed by his car number. He also knows precisely the numbers of the codes enforced on him: “excessive camping” is Park Code 3.12 and overnight park sleeping is 3.13. He even sees some cops as sympathetic, but their write-ups as punitive and futile.
“We really don’t hide from them,” Joe said. “I’ll go as far as your car to sign the ticket, then I’m going right back to my sleeping bag.”
UPDATE: Shortly after Street Sheet originally published this story in July 2009, Joe and Terrie reportedly moved back to Sacramento. Kamala Harris is now vice president of the United States after serving as a U.S. senator and attorney general of California. Paul Henderson is the director of the Department of Police Accountability in San Francisco.