By Amanda Waldroupe
District Court Judge Ann Aiken heard oral arguments from Deputy City Attorney David Landrum and the Oregon Law Center’s Monica Goracke this morning to determine the validity of a class action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of city ordinances prohibiting camping and erecting temporary structures on public property.
The suit — Anderson et al. vs. the City of Portland — claims that for people who are homeless, the city’s ordinances violate their constitutional rights, such as freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, and the right to travel.
Landrum is asking the court to dismiss the case because the legal merits of Goracke’s arguments were not well-founded. Landrum also argued that overturning the anti-camping ordinance would create a legal precedent for providing certain groups immunity from being criminally convicted.
“Irrespective of the Plaintiff’s relative efforts one way or another to alleviate or not alleviate the condition that they find themselves, which is indigency, it really turns the idea of equal protection on its head,” Landrum said.
Landrum said that because the scope of Goracke’s case only applies to those experiencing homelessness, overturning the anti-camping ordinance would prevent homeless people who camped in public places or erected temporary structures from being convicted for violating the ordinance, though other groups of people would still be held accountable to the law.
“I’m struggling with your argument,” Aiken told Landrum. “It seems what you’re discussing is the status of homelessness. I think the analysis is what conduct of these individual’s can be criminalized. Not their status.”
Landrum responded saying that the two ordinances ban on camping or erecting a structure in public places clearly addresses conduct.
Goracke’s response to Landrum’s allegation that equal protection would effectively be railroaded, was that the anti-camping ordinance and the way it is enforced by Portland police creates an extraordinary circumstance.
“What we have in Portland, like in (Los Angeles), (are) two ordinances that apply during all hours of the day and the night that make it lillegal to exist, to be, in Portland,” Goracke said.
The back and forth continued on for another hour, with Landrum attempting to poke holes in Goracke’s arguments in the case’s right to travel, right to sleep and due process claims. Goracke emphasized that the lawsuit is challenging the anti-camping and temporary structures ordinances because of the way they are enforced against individuals, and not the language of the ordinances themselves.
At the end of oral arguments, Judge Aiken appeared unlikely to accept the city’s motion to dismiss the case, saying in her concluding remarks that the case needs to “put in a different context” in the future, because both sides “are asking the wrong questions.” She said that she expects to issue her opinion on the request for dismissal in the next 10 days.
Mike Neal, the Oregon Law Center’s Litigation Director, was present during the arguments and thinks the likelihood of dismissal is slim. “I feel confident in our case,” he said afterwards.