Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Alas, no, campers aren't homeowners

A few weeks ago I posted an ironic figment here captioned, "If You Have Graffiti Are You a Homeowner?" In it I mentioned that a plastic-sheeting tent in a doorway in our neighborhood had suffered the indignity of a bright-red graffiti tag. I wondered idly if San Francisco's strict graffiti-prevention program would issue an abatement notice to the camper and if so whether that could bootstrap the camper into homeowner status.

In San Francisco, California, USA, talk like this is only a bitter joke.

I'm explaining this because my previous post has had a handful of visitors from India. Their visits have brought to mind the refreshing thought that there are parts of the world where it wouldn't be out of the question for residents of long-term unofficial camp sites to have at least some of the same rights as citizens in their homes. These visits also suggest I had better make clear that there isn't any such hope currently in San Francisco.

U.S. civil rights advocates have tried to argue that campers have the rights of people in their homes when it comes to matters like the Fourth Amendment "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." Generally it hasn't worked. This good 2009 law review article by attorney Steven Morrison spells out some of the sad decisions. His article is actually about privacy rights in "homeless shelters" -- the U.S. version of open-dormitory public or charitable housing that people in some countries might call "hostels". However, starting at Page 26 of the PDF, there's an "Other Cases" review of privacy cases affecting homeless people in other contexts, including the circumstances of squatters in abandoned buildings and unauthorized campers on public or private property.

For example, the Morrison article describes the California appellate case of People v. Thomas (1995) 45 Cal. Rptr. 2d 610, in which police investigating a burglary at a clothing factory opened a camper's cardboard shelter without waiting for warrant or response, and found stolen clothing inside. The camper's prosecution for receiving stolen property was upheld.

So, to be perfectly serious about it, most of the time, people who live in makeshift shelters on sidewalks in the United States are considered to have no more privacy rights if they are sheltered inside their unofficial homes than if they were standing on the pavement unsheltered.

On the other hand, Morrison's article suggests some hope for another view, particularly centered on the Chicago property-sweep case of Love v. City of Chicago, which he summarizes at pp. 43-44 of the PDF. He writes: "The lesson here may be that, going into the twenty-first century, courts will begin to treat homeless individuals as persons, rather than homeless persons, for Fourth Amendment purposes. If this is the case, then a mechanistic application of the property model will no longer suffice, and an assumption that homeless persons may have Fourth Amendment rights to their belongings and 'homes' will be the starting point. The law in this area is still unsettled, however..."

Here's hoping Morrison is right. In the meantime, no, the camper on Eighth Street isn't a homeowner, not that I know of, and more's the pity.

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