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Legal review impacts city enforcement effort
This encampment tucked just behind the commercial complex that houses the Give Every Child a Chance administrative building and the Manteca Educators Association is one of almost 10 along a railroad spur that runs behind Spreckels Park. - photo by JASON CAMPBELL/The Bulletin

Enforcement of three Manteca ordinances dealing with homeless encampments, camping, and the confiscation of personal property are on semi-pause in light of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by four homeless men.

City attorneys are combing the municipal ordinances of other jurisdictions to see what has worked — and what hasn’t — to see if any changes are needed to the wording of the three ordinances as well as the manner in which they are enforced.

Mark Hazelwood, an attorney with a San Francisco law firm, said the review is to make sure that Manteca has ordinances and enforcement procedures that pass constitutional muster.

That includes making sure they are not selectively targeting the homeless.

The review is expected to be completed in the near future with recommendations forwarded to the city staff and ultimately the City Council for possible fine tuning of the three ordinances.

The review comes just as warm weather has started to return bringing with it an uptick in homeless — many pushing shopping carts — gathered at Spreckels Historical Plaza and elsewhere. Complaints about homeless encampments such as those along the 120 Bypass and behind industrial buildings in Spreckels Parks are also on the increase.

At the crux of the matter is language and enforcement actions related to camping or homeless encampments on public property and right-of-way such as parks and sidewalks and whether it is legal to do so. Also in play is whether the city is adequately noticing individuals — in this case the homeless — when property involved with encampments are cleared out. That would include whether adequate advance notice is given, how long the city keeps items to be reclaimed until they are disposed and fees — if any — connected with retrieving items.

Los Angeles has gone through similar issues. That prompted the city to allow tents but not homeless encampments per se, issue 24-hour notices for the removal of personal items from sidewalks and parks (bulky items are removed immediately) and to start holding on to personal items retrieved from parks and sidewalks for 90 days before disposing of them.

Other cities are being sued by homeless for similar issues including Sacramento.

“It’s not just Manteca,” noted City Manager Karen McLaughlin.

McLaughlin stressed that trespassing on private property is being actively enforced when complaints are received by police or if a property owner has a standing letter on file with police saying no one is authorized to be on their property.

Such a standing letter gave police legal authority to act when there were trespassers on the Gordon property on Union Road where three fires started by the homeless took place including one that threatened a number of nearby homes. Similar letters from banks helped police and the city get a handle on foreclosed properties that had become havens for the homeless, drug users, teens having parties, and vandals during the height of the housing crisis.

McLaughin noted the city is still enforcing any clearly illegal acts such as drug use and drinking in public places such as parks and sidewalks. 

That, however, for prosecution to be possible requires the reporting party to be willing to testify to what they witnessed or for a responding officer to see it themselves.

Issues like littering are — for now at least – a gray area.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” McLaughlin said.

That means an item left unattended such as a pile of clothes in a park may not be considered littering for the purpose of citations. And under how some other jurisdictions have responded to legal challenges, such items as discarded clothing along with bedrolls and other such items, they may be treated as a school might taking them essentially to a lost and found instead of trashing them immediately. And like a school’s lost and found, the items would be held onto for so long before being disposed of if they are not claimed.

McLaughlin said the city ordinances pertain to its jurisdiction and that the state may have other rules they deal with in regarding highway right of ways.

For example pedestrians or anyone on foot — unless they have legal permission to be there such as litter collection crews — are prohibited in freeway right-of-way such as along the 120 Bypass and Highway 99.

Caltrans periodically clears out homeless encampments within the interchanges on the 120 Bypass at Union Road, Main Street, and Airport Way as well as along sound walls. They don’t do so in Stockton at Highway 4 and Interstate 5 due to an ongoing dispute with the City of Stockton that has taken to placing portable bathrooms and trash bins near the freeway encampments.

The Manteca lawsuit was filed in November by the San Francisco law firm of Morris and Foster on behalf Robert Schuknecht and three other homeless individuals.

Schuknecht was barbecuing in a privately-owned landscape strip in front of a dental office Wednesday at his usual panhandling location at the East Yosemite Avenue entrance to McDonald’s where he can be seen at times strumming his guitar. Many times he has a cart partially blocking the sidewalk and is seen with his dog that he now keeps on a leash most of the time to comply with city laws. Sometimes he has other homeless that will sit in lawn chairs in the landscaping areas as well as nap on the ground.

One of the triggering incidents for Schuknecht in pursuing the lawsuit was the impounding of his 1996 GMC Yukon when he was arrested in Library Park. It was reportedly sold it for scrap when he couldn’t pay for the tow and impound fees.

Three months after that the charges were cleared by a judge.