CITY HALL — Santa Monica will not have to change any of its laws, practices or policies and is not required to make a payment under a deal announced Tuesday night to resolve a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union that accused City Hall officials of illegally enforcing an anti-camping ordinance in violation of homeless individuals’ rights.
The ACLU suit, filed last July, alleged that by improperly enforcing the ordinance, Santa Monica police officers and other employees had in effect made it a crime to be homeless in Santa Monica.
In announcing the agreement, both sides seemed to declare victory.
“Santa Monica is known nationwide for its long history of responding to homelessness with compassion, innovation and funding. For these reasons, the ACLU’s lawsuit was a waste of their resources and a failure to understand Santa Monica’s extensive work,” a City Hall press release stated.
The ACLU, which collaborated on the suit with the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, struck a different tone, saying the suit achieved its aim of altering the way Santa Monica treats the homeless long before the suit was dismissed.
“Because the city of Santa Monica has stopped using vaguely worded camping ordinances as a pretext to round up homeless people, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson have agreed to drop a lawsuit against the city over its homeless policies,” an ACLU press release stated.
A federal judge in Los Angeles dismissed the suit last month, but details of the parties’ out of court agreement weren’t released until Tuesday night.
Under the agreement, both parties affirmed a set of broad principles that are unbinding and don’t require any specific action.
According to the ACLU, the principles are that “no one should be forced out of his or her community simply for being homeless; that all communities need to provide a reasonable amount of shelter beds and services; and public safety personnel must be adequately trained to interact with homeless people.”
At City Hall, officials were careful to call the agreement a “resolution,” rather than a “settlement,” emphasized Santa Monica did not have to admit fault in order to resolve the suit, and noted it was dismissed “with prejudice,” meaning the ACLU is barred from bringing a future action based on the same claim.
But Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU of Southern California’s legal director, said the lawsuit was a success.
“We noticed upon filing this suit that the arrests under this ordinance immediately stopped,” he said. “We went back out and spoke to the homeless and learned that in fact they weren’t being arrested anymore.”
He said the ACLU will continue to monitor Santa Monica’s treatment of the homeless and could bring a future action based on new evidence if it learns homeless people’s rights are being violated.
Rosenbaum said the lawsuit was based on reports that mentally ill homeless individuals were being continually arrested simply for sleeping on the ground in Santa Monica under its anti-camping ordinance in an attempt to drive them out of town.
He didn’t provide statistics to back up the claim but said far fewer homeless individuals were arrested under the ordinance after the ACLU brought its action.
“The pattern and practice was stopped in its tracks after the suit was filed, and I commend the city for doing that,” he said.
City Hall officials, though, have continued to dispute that the suit accomplished anything.
“When it comes to addressing homelessness, Santa Monica is the regional leader. We believe the lawsuit was unnecessary and a distraction. Everyone needs to focus on regional issues to solve homelessness in Los Angeles once and for all,” said Mayor Bobby Shriver.
The deal reached with Santa Monica contrasts with an earlier settlement reached in a similar suit the ACLU brought against the city of Laguna Beach.
According to the ACLU, in that settlement Laguna Beach police officers were barred from citing, arresting or harassing people under state law for sleeping in public places, as long as there were no reasonable public health or safety concerns. The Laguna Beach agreement also established a process for sealing, expunging or destroying citations that were written, and convictions that were obtained, under the city’s “anti-sleeping” ordinance, the ACLU said.