Putting the "Public" back in Public Parks

Hey readers! We're back with big news this week in one of our long-running ACLU of Nevada cases, Sacco v. City of Las Vegas. Those of you who have been following us for a while will remember this one--it's all about feeding the homeless in public parks. Norhtern Coordinator Lee Rowland has more:

The ACLU of Nevada is pleased to announce that our nearly five-year legal battle with the City of Las Vegas over parks appears to be nearing an end. At the heart of this case is a debate about homelessness and the place of private charity in our community. It is our hope and belief that the end of this case, Sacco v. Las Vegas, means two things: that our clients may continue to engage in protected charitable activism in public parks, and that the public parks remain just that: public, open to all regardless of whether they have a steady income, or a home.

In 2006, the City of Las Vegas became locked in a bizarre war with homeless advocates, and decided that no one should be engaging in charity in the public parks. The City began ticketing good Samaritans who shared food with more than 24 people, under the belief that giving food to people already in the public park violated statutes requiring permits for gatherings of 25 or more people. When the ACLU of Nevada took issue with this interpretation of permit laws, the City took a more direct approach: it explicitly outlawed the sharing of food with anyone who looked poor. Like other advocates, our client Gail Sacco believed that a city mandate did not trump her duty to her God and her values: she simply began sharing her free vegetarian food on public streets and sidewalks abutting the parks.

Other homeless individuals were being kicked out of parks under a questionable trespass policy called “86”ing, where Park Marshals essentially took photographs of certain people – almost always homeless people – who were then kicked out of the public parks on pain of a trespass misdemeanor if they returned. The 86ing process had no paperwork, no right to appeal, and no due process whatsoever.

The ACLU of Nevada got involved because we believed the City’s actions were essentially an unconstitutional one-two punch against the homeless and those advocating on their behalf. We firmly believed both that our clients had a right to engage in constitutionally protected charitable activity, and that everyone, regardless of income, has a right to enjoy their public park space. Since the City ‘doubled down” on its anti-charity posture by passing the “no feeding the poor” law, we had little choice but to go to federal court. We challenged each of these practices – the “no feeding the poor” law, the permit process itself and its application to charitable activism, and the lack of due process in the 86ing policy. While the “no feeding the poor” law was immediately struck down by the court, our clients and the City remained at odds as to the other restrictions on the use of public parks.

Fortunately, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, after hearing the parties’ oral arguments, noted that the City and the plaintiffs were not so far apart on the law, and asked us all to participate in mediation to resolve our disputes. This week, we publicly released the result of that mediation: a signed settlement where the City, in exchange for our dropping the case, has agreed to pass certain modifications to the permitting and 86ing systems. Hopefully, the Las Vegas City Council will agree to these changes, we can all stay out of court, and the public parks of Las Vegas will go back to serving their purpose: a refuge for all members of the public.