A federal judge in Orange County ruled this month that a homeless man in Laguna Beach who complained about alleged police harassment and city-sponsored discrimination has lost all of his claims except for one: Have city officials imposed an unconstitutional residency requirement to sleep at a local government shelter?
U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter's decision to accept the 18-page recommendations of Magistrate Judge Marc L. Goldman is a victory for police chief Paul Workman and four officers–Jason Farris, Matt Gregg, Greg Hiler and Luke Gilbertson–all of whom Leonard J. Porto III accused of being professionally inadequate after repeatedly harassing him when he sleeps overnight in his car or on a public bench.
Carter, a longtime Laguna Beach resident, also determined that Porto–a self-described “non-drinking and drug-free person” who is “partially disabled” and without a criminal record–did not have legal standing to challenge the city's anti-camping rule because, while officers occasionally confronted him and gave him written warnings, they didn't give him tickets, confiscate his property or arrest him.
In his 2012 civil complaint, Porto, then 55 years old, informed the court that officer Farris was an overzealous harasser of the homeless by, for example, issuing 160 sleeping-in-public citations during a 10-month period in 2011 when the shelter was full.
Porto additionally said he was unconstitutionally blocked, in part, from using a city shelter because he refused to sign a liability waiver and that city officials cheated him on fulfilling California Public Records Act requests.
Neither of those claims garnered much sympathy from the federal judges.
But Porto also accused Laguna Beach officials of violating his rights by refusing to put him–a resident of the city for more 24 months–on a list of homeless individuals who been in the city for at least 18 months, a requirement to use the city's “Alternative Sleeping Locations” for overnight sleeping.
That legal issue intrigued Goldman, who observed that “laws imposing durational residency requirements for the receipt of government benefits” could “infringe on the right to travel” and, thus, should undergo “strict scrutiny.”
According to Goldman, district courts in the Ninth Circuit have so far “avoided deciding the issue.”
“The parties have not addressed the issue of whether the right to travel recognized by the Supreme Court encompasses the right to intrastate travel,” the judge wrote. “Without additional briefing, it is premature for the court to decide whether the constitution protects a fundamental right to intrastate travel and, if so, whether the plaintiff has stated a claim upon which relief may be granted for violation of such a right. Fact development may also be necessary to resolve this claim.”
The upcoming legal battle on that issue might not be a fair one. Resourceful, veteran lawyer Philip D. Kohn of Rutan and Tucker represents the city, the coastal jewel of Orange County that captured international attention from an MTV reality show. Porto, who claims the city “has a long and well-documented history of ignoring or oppressing the basic needs of homeless to force them to travel elsewhere,” represents himself.