Can shelters require you to take a drug test?

Privately operated shelters are generally allowed to limit their populations in ways that might surprise you: They can allow people of just one gender to stay there. They can exclude children. They can exclude drug users. If the shelter is committed to keeping out drug users, then it has to be fair and legitimate in figuring out who is using drugs. The most reliable way to be sure that the shelter does not have any drug users is to conduct scientific testing.

If a shelter is testing for drug use just to prevent drug crimes from happening then, depending on whether and how it is connected with the government, it may be violating the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment which requires that investigators (or drug testers) have both 1. probable cause to believe that a particular person has committed a certain crime and 2. a warrant issued by a judge in order to search for evidence connected with the crime. http://law.justia.com/constitution/us/amendment-04/07-probable-cause.html  To simply guess that a person coming into a homeless shelter might be drug user would not, without other proof, justify a drug test.

If the shelter is targeting certain individuals or groups for drug testing, then those individuals or groups may have a legal claim of discrimination.

Even if the shelter is testing everyone or else is doing random drug testing that doesn’t target individuals or groups, the drug tests might be seen as invasions of privacy. The ACLU takes a strong stand on this and has won court cases by proving that the entities testing for drug use did not have reasons that outweighed people’s right to have the chemical content of their urine kept private. http://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/drug-testing Contact your local ACLU office if you want them to consider suing a shelter for its drug testing practices. http://www.aclu.org/affiliates

In most states, if there is any drug testing law at all, it is about when and how employers can test workers for drug use. You can peruse those state laws via Nolo Press at http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/free-books/employee-rights-book/chapter5-3.html Even though employers and shelters have separate specific reasons for conducting drug tests, the reasons are probably connected with safety in both settings. So, if you have to argue against a drug testing policy you might want to first see whether you have a state law and then compare the shelter’s policy with it to see if the policy looks like it complies with the law. If you don’t think it does, contact Project H.E.L.P. http://homelesslegalprotection.com/h-e-l-p-locations/ or the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty http://www.nlchp.org/contact_us.cfm or your local legal aid office. http://www.lsc.gov

How can homeless advocates get laws to change?

There are several components to getting laws changed so that public services can better include homeless people and so that the government can better protect homeless people.

First, it is necessary to develop a very clear statement about how the law needs to change.
Examples:
If government services exclude homeless people because they lack an address or particular ID documents, maybe advocates should petition for exceptions to be added to those particular regulations .
If the crimes code doesn’t adequately deal with violent attackers who target the homeless, then perhaps the state’s hate crimes law can be modified to include crimes against the homeless as hate crimes.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has an excellent online compilation of its Congressional testimony, letters to lawmakers, and authoritative commentary on proposed laws and regulations. http://nlihc.org/library/testimony/testimonies  Peruse these documents to see good examples of concise and persuasive ways to state your concerns.

Here are some samples of legislative issue lists from assorted homeless advocacy groups:
Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness
http://www.helpingtohouse.org/advocacy.php

Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless
http://www.rihomeless.org/AboutHomelessness/Solutions/LegislationWeAreFightingFor/tabid/267/Default.aspx

Washington State Coalition for the Homeless
http://endhomelessnesswa.org/action/

Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless
http://www.mnhomelesscoalition.org/

Second, advocates need to identify and involve legislators whose committee work directly relates to the problem needing to be solved. 

A great example of this is the work done by Sapphire Jule King, Founder and President of the International Freedom Coalition who first declared that Rhode Island needed a Bill of Rights for Homeless People. http://strongfamiliesnow.org/blog/2010/11/26/bill-of-rights-for-the-homeless/  See also Ms. King’s analytical editorial about how that final Bill of Rights failed to include critical protections against abuses by shelters, despite all of the input from shelter abuse victims.  Along with John Joyce of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project and the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, the International Freedom Coalition notified the state’s Human Rights Commission and Senator John Tassoni, Chair of the Rhode Island Senate’s Chair of Housing and Municipal Government, about a range of substandard government treatment of homeless people including the fact that they are often blocked from state government services because they lack street addresses to put on forms  and the ways they are harmed by homeless sweeps and other arbitrary government seizures of their possessions. They even got the senator to visit a homeless shelter.   http://www.strongfamiliesnow.org/documents/Homeless-Study-Working-Paper.pdf
http://strongfamiliesnow.org/bor/bill-of-rights-for-the-homeless/

Third, collect and share with legislators and the public reliable information to raise awareness about the issue.

The National Coalition for the Homeless does a masterful job of compiling facts about homeless life and has good experience at influencing legislation.  Read through some of their handbooks to see how to draft petitions, compose invitation letters to politicians, write a press release, draft a model law for the legislature to build-on, generate community support, etc…

Hate Crimes Manual— a packet of sample documents and instructions for getting your legislature to include attacks against homeless people in the hate crimes law.
http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/hatecrimes/hatecrimesmanual10.pdf

Fundamentals to Prevent Homelessness—a  packet of documents and instructions for getting political candidates to pledge that they will work to prevent and reduce homelessness.
http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/fivefundamentals/index.html

The National Association of Social Workers has a helpful Lobbying Handbook http://www.naswct.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=19 with practical instructions to help you through the steps of writing to legislators, organizing visits to the legislature, knowing how to testify, and other ways of making sure that your message gets through to lawmakers.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), in its Human Services issue section http://www.ncsl.org/issues-research/human-services.aspx?tabs=858,50, provides information to legislators who are trying to develop new laws and amend old laws with provisions for people in poverty. The site specifically says that “NCSL staff can provide [for legislators] comprehensive, thorough, timely and in-depth information on critical human service policy issues.”  The same site also tells about and links to recent federal and state legislation on assorted poverty issues.

How can a squatter get the actual title to the property?

The earlier post about squatter’s rights identifies the behavior that can give a squatter rights to property.  But the legal right to property is only complete when the title is transferred. Usually, a title is transferred when a seller conveys property to a buyer.

A squatter attempting to get title is not buying from the seller; he or she is trying to get property for which no seller seems to exist.  The process for obtaining the title without having the last owner sell it to the buyer is called an “action to quiet title.”  Generally, there are three big steps involved in quieting a title:

  1. Searching for anyone who has a claim to all or part of the property, even if the claim is just a right to use the property for some purpose and not to own it.  For example, there might be a neighbor who has an easement that allows him to drive his truck through the property every morning.  This search is a big expensive investigation.  Most state laws about quieting title will require claimants to prove that they have thoroughly hunted in public records (vital and property)  and placed multiple ads in various newspapers as ways of searching for the current property owner.
  2. Filing documents in the appropriate court.  In this step, you have to write and submit assorted documents according to all of the rules required in your jurisdiction.  You might be able to find a sample of someone else’s action to quiet title by contacting or going to the court clerk’s office and paying for copies of the documents in that case.  If the clerk’s office will not provide you with a full case file, they might at least give or direct you to a list of things that you have to include in your court filing.  You can also look for sample forms in Justia.   Here is an example from the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania section in Justia Forms: “Fraudulent Conveyance- Quiet Title Packet.”  If you cannot find online forms for your county, you will need to go to a law library and find a book of standard real estate forms.  Any form from a book must be re-designed to match the requirements in your county court’s document rules. Here are the quiet title instructions for Kansas.  Here are the Colorado quiet title instructions. Here is North Dakota’s quiet title law. Here is an example of a Complaint to Quiet Title in Florida. Here is an example of a Complaint to Quiet Title in California.
  3. Making your claim.  When you write the court documents in an action to quiet title, you will have to tell about and show the proof that you satisfied all of your state’s requirements for adverse possession and that you also satisfied your state and county requirements for taking action to quiet title.  This is a detailed descriptive writing project, not merely the simple work of completing a form.  If your documents are accepted by the court, you will be assigned a date to appear in court.  In court, you will have to answer questions that the judge asks you.   If the current property owner does not come to court that day, you might have to do an additional procedure asking the judge to give you a “default judgment.”  If the judge decides that you have satisfactorily proved your claim, he or she will give you a document to file with the deeds office.

How can a homeless person living in a car or van get auto insurance without having an address?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****
 
State auto insurance laws do require you to carry some sort of coverage on your automobile and you generally do have to prove that you are eligible to be insured in that state by providing the insurance company with documentation of your living in and, if applicable, owning a vehicle in that state. In other words, insurance companies expect that the address you list on your policy application will match the address on your automobile registration and driver’s license, both of which require you to notify state authorities when you change addresses. Also, because the insurance company has legal status as your agent in matters connected with that policy it does need to know where and how to contact you.
 
To obtain a driver’s license you have to show that you truly are the person you claim to be. The federal REAL ID Act requires states to cross check other identification sources when issuing driver’s licenses. The Department of Homeland Security summarizes the Act at http://www.dhs.gov/real-id-public-faqs and links to the official documents at http://www.dhs.gov/secure-drivers-license-documentation.  Each state has the flexibility to design its drivers license identification law in ways that accommodate the homeless and long distance truck drivers and others who do not reside in a fixed location. Some states, for example, accept ID verification letters from homeless service providers. 
 
The most efficient way to find your state’s current identification rule is to contact the Department of Motor Vehicles. http://www.dmv-department-of-motor-vehicles.com/  though you might find it from the National Conference of State Legislatures’ list.  http://www.ncsl.org/default.aspx?tabid=13574  You should be able to use e-mail to contact your DMV and simply ask what documentation they want you to bring. If you can’t get satisfaction from the DMV, get in touch with your local homeless service provider and ask that agency to help you get an address exception to obtain a driver’s license. http://www.nationalhomeless.org/directories/index.html
 
If your state driver’s license ID law does not yet have a way for you to obtain a license (and, secondarily, insurance), you can contact your state legislature and petition to have the law amended. The National Conference of State Legislatures has lots of REAL ID material for state legislators to read http://www.ncsl.org/Default.aspx?TabID=756&tabs=951,72,110#110  because state lawmakers have been developing these new identification laws for a couple of years.
Related sources:
The Insurance Information Institute has several helpful fact sheets about state financial responsibility laws. http://www.iii.org/insurance-topics/auto-insurance.  You can find an individual state’s auto insurance laws through its insurance commission. http://www.naic.org/state_web_map.htm
See my post about mail forwarding services to find companies that will register your vehicle for you.
 
 
 

 

When can the animal control authorities take away your pets?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Municipal ordinances (source 1source 2) regulate pet licensing as well as pets’ outdoor behavior. In most places, the local animal control authority, a.k.a. “the dogcatcher”, will take away a pet only when it has been found unattended and unleashed walking around on the loose or because it has injured people or other animals. But they can also take pets away if they believe those pets are victims of cruelty or neglect. Keeping pets outside in extreme weather and feeding pets out of garbage cans might both be considered cruel or neglectful treatment.

If you truly are the owner of an animal, as evidenced by a license, you have a constitutional due process right to be informed of where your animal is being held and what you have to do to get that pet released.[i]  Ordinarily, cities have ordinances or animal control authorities have internal rules that dictate how that information is to be conveyed to pet owners. To make a successful due process claim, you have to prove that either the process delineated in the rules or ordinances wasn’t followed or else that the lack of such rules or ordinances denies you due process.

The most common way of tracing an animal’s owner is by using the contact information on the animal’s tag. If the pet owner became homeless after that tag was issued and the contact information no longer leads the shelter or animal control office to the right person, there is not always a second way of trying to track the owner down. Similarly, if the animal does not have identification, like a collar tag or microchip, etc… showing how to contact its owners, the animal control authority generally does not have a legal obligation to try to track down an owner; the resources necessary to reach out into the community trying to find out whether anyone is missing that animal just make it too expensive a practice for the law to make it mandatory.

Although the law does not specifically say so, common sense says that if the tag information is no longer correct or it is possible that the animal’s tag came off or someone in animal control doesn’t do a job right, pet owners have to take responsibility for contacting the local animal shelters when a pet is missing. If you don’t find the pet on your own, you might never get it back; the shelter could let someone adopt your pet or, worse, they might destroy it.

Violating some pet behavior laws will result in fines rather than confiscation of the pet. Failure to clean up after a pet or walking it without a leash or not preventing it from incessantly making noise are likely to result in a fine as penalty. Most of the time, pet owners are notified of these legal violations by getting a ticket, like a traffic ticket, in the mail. But, police officers can simply hand that ticket to someone who does not have a known mailing address. Even if you get a ticket (a.k.a. citation) that does not fully identify you by name and address and even if you cannot pay the fine, you still need to communicate with the animal control authority and possibly your local court, depending on how the pet ordinances are enforced in your town.

If you have not found a way to correct the lack of a leash or loud dog or other problem before going to court, it is appropriate to ask the court for help in obtaining a leash or other equipment that might be too expensive for you and which will put your pet in compliance with the law; sometimes animal courts have relationships with charitable organizations that can help with those sorts of matters. If the court is not able to intervene and help you equip for legal compliance, then ask them for the names of agencies that might help and, at the same time, ask if the court will consider dismissing the ticket against you if you return to court in a week or two with the leash or muzzle or pooper scooper that will prevent the offense from occurring again.


[i] Com. v. Gonzales, 588 A2d. 528, 535; 403 Pa. Super 157, 169 (Pa. Super. 1991); Clark v. Draper, 168 F.3d 1185, 1189-90 (Cir. 10, 1999).

If you don’t own or rent a place in which to store your possessions, but store them in somebody else’s home, do the homeowners have the right to move or use your things? Do they have the right to throw them away if you are gone for any particular period of time?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

There are two areas of law to look at in answering these questions: contracts and torts.  A contracts analysis would consider whether the homeowner had agreed to take care of your things or at least store them for a particular amount of time and whether you had any obligations in return. Torts is the area of law that is known more casually as “personal injury.”  A torts analysis would look at the act of “conversion” which means taking unauthorized control over someone else’s possession.  A milder tort claim that might apply but would be harder to prove is “trespass against chattels” which is a claim against someone for unauthorized use of possessions.[i] Both a contract claim and a tort claim would be made in civil court, probably small claims court depending on the monetary damage that has been suffered.

In the contract dispute, the person whose possessions were taken or discarded seeks to show that the homeowner stopped protecting or storing the possessions. In other words, the terms of the storage bargain were violated. (A contract claim would probably apply to a situation involving the homeowner’s use of the stored possessions only if he used them so much that they wore out; only in that extreme kind of situation would it be likely to say that using the stuff breached an agreement to store and care for it.)

Since contract law comes from past cases, rather than statutes, the facts of each dispute are compared to previous cases with similar facts. Those facts have to be backed with good proof. If the possessions were in a church locker because that church had a policy that poor people could store things there for up to thirty days, then the court claim would have to include a copy of that written policy or admissions from church officials about the existence of the policy.[ii]

If the possessions were suddenly gone from a friend’s basement, the claim would have to demonstrate where and for how long the friend agreed to keep the stuff. Relatives of the homeowner might serve as witnesses to the agreement. Perhaps the homeless person can convince the court that he had another place where he would have moved his things had he not relied on this friend to keep them.

Clearly, there will be different facts involved with each situation, but the person trying to prove that an agreement existed always has to show as much detail as possible about the content of the agreement and the way both of the parties to the agreement knew those terms. Then, conveying that the terms were not followed will convince a court that the contract was breached.

To make the conversion claim, it is necessary to prove that even though the homeless owner of the possessions put them in the custody of the homeowner:
1. the homeowner took control over the stuff and
2. the homeless owner of the stuff could not get it back after asking for it or was not even able to ask for it.

Under the common law, and still in many states, the court claim to sue someone who has converted someone else’s possessions to his own is called “trover.” In filing that kind of lawsuit, it is proper to say something like, “the plaintiff is suing the defendant in trover to recover money damages for the television that plaintiff stored in defendant’s house and which defendant converted to his own possession by installing it in his den and subsequently refusing to return it to the plaintiff.” Although this example, which was only intended to show how the words “trover” and “conversion” relate to each other, makes a claim for money damages, that is not the only remedy for conversion. It is also proper to sue for return of the possessions, especially if they have sentimental value.

Note that a conversion claim is not only used when someone appropriates another person’s stuff. It is also correct to make a claim for conversion if someone storing things threw them away or gave them to someone else or otherwise made them unavailable to the owner.[iii]

See the Homeless Law Blog posts about court for information about bringing a contracts and/or torts case in civil court.


[i] It has been said that both of these tort claims are really the same when somebody takes and carries away another person’s possession. Wint. V. Alabama Eye and Tissue Bank, 675 So. 2d 383 (Ala. 1996).

[ii] This example is used to demonstrate that even though the word “homeowner” is generally being used in this section, the legal reasoning applies to any private favor-type of arrangement that is not as formal as having a fee-based storage deal.

[iii] To find cases involving conversions in the state where you live, look in a West case digest or a legal encyclopedia published by West using the topic “trover and conversion.” The digests and encyclopedias will show dozens of ways that people take control over other people’s things. They will also have lots of real-life examples of how people tried to get their stuff back or tried to prevent the person who was only supposed to store it from using it.

What legal rights do users of public bathing facilities have?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Aside from the already mentioned health regulations stating that where there are toilets there must be sinks and where there are sinks there must be soap, the legal rights connected to using public bathing facilities depend, as always, on whether the place is run by the government or a private entity. The particular activities that people may undertake in the facility depend on the staffing, physical plant, and monetary resources of the place and are not a matter of law. They do not have to allow shaving or nail cutting or tooth-brushing, for example. They might only have showers, not bathtubs. They might only allow people to bathe individually to prevent people from having sexual encounters there. Law is about the way people and government behave toward each other and how society operates, it rarely ever declares that people are entitled to do any particular activity in a certain place.

Sometimes there are bathing facilities at churches, shelters, nonprofit community centers and other privately operated places that are funded by donations from individuals and businesses. These privately operated facilities are obligated to function according to the direction of their own boards and their funding sources. This means that private facilities can have their own rules and limitations about the circumstances under which they allow people to wash there or obtain hygiene supplies. It also means that they can be unfair in providing their services: allowing some people to have more time than others, excluding some people, not providing notice of rule changes, etc…

If a private agency or organization gets government funding toward a particular service, like establishing bathing facilities, there may be regulatory legal obligations connected with using that funding. The whole facility is probably not subject to those obligations,[i] only the component providing the government-funded service. To find out abut those obligations, which will probably be about the way the service is provided and the conditions of the facility, it is necessary to find out which government agency (i.e., state department of health or county department of welfare or city special grant bureau, etc…) gives that funding and then contact that government agency to obtain a copy of the regulations and instructions for interacting with them if you believe their regulations have not been followed.[ii]

Sometimes, municipalities or counties install public showers and other washing facilities as part of food banks, health clinics, community centers and other social service agencies that those government entities operate. Those kinds of facilities are considered government property because their buildings and their operations are paid for out of the ordinary tax base either through the regular budget stream or specially-dedicated government funds like limited term grants. Public users are entitled to civil rights protections when accessing these government operated facilities. The civil rights protections include things like equal access, freedom from religious impositions (i.e., they can’t force you to say a prayer or participate in religious counseling in order to obtain the service), free speech, freedom from being searched unless the search is a routine security process used for everyone, privacy…   (Read more about civil rights on Findlaw.)

All of the rights enumerated in the last paragraph are simply listed as general civil rights principles. Civil rights principles arise from the ways court cases interperet amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  So, civil rights is an area of law in which there is often not a clear rule for everyone to follow.  Rather, it is a constant analysis of comparisons:

1. weighing the government’s purpose along with its rule and

2. determining whether the rule, as applied in the situation being questioned, is structured just to serve that government interest. If it limits people unfairly by going beyond the scope of the government interest, it violates civil rights.

A helpful resource for learning about civil rights is Justia’s Annotated U.S. Constitution.  Read the sections about the Amendments to the Constitution to find easy explanations of how courts have interpreted those amendments.  Note that the list of amendments tells what subjects are covered in each amendment (due process, free speech, etc…)  Click on the hyperlinked name of any case on that site and you’ll get to the Supreme Court’s full decision.

Here are two examples demonstrating how civil rights can be outweighed by significant government interests:

  •  If a member of the public, who routinely carries a weapon, comes to the public washing facility, the facility can probably justify locking the weapon away while the visitor is on the premises because the facility has an obligation to prevent harm to its staff and users.
  • People are supposed to have the right to free speech in a public place. However, if someone comes into a washing facility and makes threatening comments to other people bathing there, the facility (i.e., the government) may be at risk of losing the victims of those comments. If the whole purpose of the washing facility is to give people a place to get clean and try to avoid disease, but people were too scared to go there, then it wouldn’t be an effective washing facility anymore unless the place refused to allow threats.

[i] The whole facility can be required to make changes in order to comply with legal requirements and accommodate the government funded part. For example, the building might have to install new doors, or fire safety devices, or a stair railing, or make other kinds of modifications to the building entrance or the building’s systems in order to make the government funded bathing service properly safe and available to public users.

[2] State agencies, such as health departments, publish their regulations in administrative codes.  All of the states’ administrative codes are available on the Internet from the National Association of Secretaries of State at http://www.administrativerules.org/.

Are you entitled to privacy when you carry out private acts in public places?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Because of their built-in requirements that people have to avoid being seen naked in public, the various lewdness, public nudity, indecent exposure, pubic urination, and obscenity statutes seem to create a guarantee of privacy for people conducting private acts in public spaces.

If people spy on someone washing himself or take pictures of somebody scratching, dressing, cuddling, etc… in a place where he expects that nobody will see him, then the surprise and offense, crucial elements of those indecent exposure laws, are now against the person performing these private functions rather than the onlooker. Just as the law protects the unsuspecting viewing public by criminalizing genital exposure, the law protects the unsuspecting naked public by criminalizing peeping toms.

Unfortunately, there is a significant limitation in most laws about peeping toms; the person being spied on has to have been inside of a building in order for the peeping tom to be criminally charged. For years legal scholars have called for new and revised privacy protections for people who are out of doors. Some have pointed out that since the body itself, not a building in which the body might be located, is in need of privacy protection, the peeping tom laws should not be limited to window peeping or building invasions of any kind.[i] 

An interesting legal phenomenon has resulted with the invention of smaller and less obvious photographic equipment that makes surreptitious observation of other people’s bodies quieter, more convenient, and generally sneakier. The peeping tom laws, which are often local ordinances punishable only by fines or community service, have been supported by new state laws about voyeurism which emphasize the medium used for spying rather than the place where spying occurred as the basis for guilt. This change in statutes began in response to cases in which courts sought to punish people using up-skirt cameras to photograph under women’s skirts in malls, sports arenas, and other busy places.[ii] 

California, Kansas, Louisiana, South Dakota, and other states have enacted laws in the last several years to criminalize secretly spying and recording people with cameras or video cameras in ways that are done for sexual pleasure.[iii]

Connecticut’s video voyeur law is particularly simple and, in its simplicity, offers decent protection for homeless people doing private things outside: “A person is guilty of voyeurism when, with malice or intent to arouse or satisfy the sexual desire of such person or any other person, such person knowingly photographs, films, videotapes or otherwise records the image of another person (1) without the knowledge and consent of such other person, (2) while such other person is not in plain view, and (3) under circumstances where such other person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.”[iv] 

Even with this development regarding video voyeurism, municipalities and states attempting to revise their general criminal voyeurism codes so that they will apply out-of-doors run into difficulty delineating logical boundaries: Will people be at risk of criminal charges every time they look at anyone else? Will they only be charged if they look for a certain amount of time or from a particular distance?

If someone was just looking at the sunset and a person nearby takes off his clothes, might the first person be found guilty of a crime? If somebody is lost in the woods and accidentally comes upon a couple having sex, can the couple call the police? These are the kinds of questions lawmakers think of as they try to construct statutes that will protect people from being spied on in public places, but also prevent innocent folks from getting in trouble just for looking around.

Criminal harassment laws which punish “alarming conduct serving no legitimate purpose”[v] are certainly available for homeless people to assert when they complain to police about people spying on them. But, unless there has been a pattern of harassment, i.e., stalking, to the extent that the victim can accurately describe the perpetrator and give the police a prediction about when and where he will act next, there simply won’t be adequate proof to even find someone who spied on a homeless person, let alone prosecute him. So, despite the existence of harassment statutes and the video voyeurism laws, there is still a gap in legal sanctioning against people who spy on the homeless doing private functions outside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[i] See, Andrew Jay McClurg, Bringing Privacy Law out of the Closet: A Tort Theory of Liability for Intrusions in Public Places, 73 N.C.L. Rev. 989 (1995); Lance E. Rothenberg, Comment, Re-Thinking Privacy: Peeping Toms, Video Voyeurs, and Failure of the Criminal Law to Recognize a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in the Public Space, 49 Am. U.L. Rev. 1127 (2000).

[ii] See, e.g., State v. Glas, 54 P.3d 147 (Wash. 2002).  See generally, Maria Pope, Comment, Technology Arms Peeping Toms with a New and Dangerous Arsenal: A Compelling Need for States to Adopt New Legislation, 17 J. Marshall J. Computer & Info. L. 1167 (1999).

[iii] Kan. Stat. Ann. § 21-4001 (2006); Cal. Pen. Code § 647(k)(2), (k)(3)(A) (2007); S.D. Codified Laws § 22-21-4 (2007); Del. Code Ann. tit. 11, § 1335 (2007); Fla. Stat. ch. 810.14 (2007); Ga. Code Ann. § 16-11-62(2) (2007); Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.44.115 (2007).

[iv] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53a-189a (2004).

[v] Model Penal Code § 250.4.  Not every sate has adopted this part of the Model Penal Code, and those that have adopted it may have changed the wording, but it does represent the legal standard for harassment.

What kinds of information can you get when you do legal research?

 **** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Every branch of the government makes law.  

1. Statutes are written by the legislative branch of government.
2. Cases are decided by the judiciary branch of government.
3. Regulations are made by the executive branch of government.

The notes at the end of each of these blog posts show examples of all of these kinds of law.  Statutes, cases, and regulations are known as “primary law” because they are written by the government. There are also good “secondary” sources that are clearer to read and easier to navigate than the primary sources. It is usually a good idea to begin a legal research project by hunting through the secondary sources and, from those, getting leads for what to seek in the primary law.

Secondary sources include legal encyclopedias such as American Jurisprudence (called “Am Jur”) and Corpus Juris Secundum (known as CJS) which are both organized in alphabetical order by topic, just like most encyclopedias. At the end of each set is an index where researchers can look for a particular word or issue to find out where it fits within the main alphabetical topics of the set. Some states have their own legal encyclopedias. Other commonly used secondary sources are law journals which publish long detailed descriptive articles and have lots of footnotes leading to additional information. At public libraries, law journals might be available in social sciences databases for convenient searching.

It is almost always possible to identify at least one entire book about any legal subject. The public library might not have the particular books you need, but the county law library might have them.  If you cannot get to the county law library, as if your public  library can borrow it from another library which does have it. This procedure is called interlibrary loan. It is a service that public libraries typically provide to patrons with a library card. A homeless patron who, because of the lack of an address, does not have a library card can sometimes arrange an alternative method of obtaining interlibrary loan books though he won’t be able to remove them from the library.

The internet, as is obvious from this blog’s footnotes, has a wealth of freely available legal information. Nearly every state and federal agency, legislature, and court has its own Web site with its laws or case opinions.[i] Law libraries publish helpful online research guides with links to reliable Web sources.[ii] Bar associations and law firms publish authoritative introductions to legal issues.[iii] These types of entities are good sources of legal information. 
——————————————————————————–

[i] Cornell Legal Information Institute http://www.law.cornell.edu/ and WashLaw Web from Washburn law school http://www.washlaw.edu/ and Justia http://www.justia.com/ are all reliable sources of state and federal law.

[ii] The law librarians’ resource exchange has a good collection of research guides http://llrx.com/. NYU’s research guides are at http://www.law.nyu.edu/library/research/researchguides/index.htm. The Washington State Library has research guides at http://www.courts.wa.gov/library/index.cfm. A terrific non-library site, the University of Pittsburgh’s JURIST has extensive scholarly legal information links organized by topic http://www.jurist.law.pitt.edu/subj_gd.htm.

[iii] The Texas Bar Association provides free pamphlets on a variety of legal issues at http://www.texasbar.com/template.cfm?section=pamphlets. The Michigan Bar’s Online Legal Help Center http://www.michbar.org/generalinfo/libraries/selfhelp.cfm “was created to help Michigan citizens find legal information to help them work better with their attorney, and to represent themselves in some instances.” The Illinois Bar has a Web site called “The Law and You in Illinois” http://www.illinoislawyerfinder.com/publicinfo/home.html which links to useful summaries about all kinds of legal transactions. The Oregon State Bar has explanatory guides at http://www.osbar.org/public/legallinks.html. The State Bar of Nevada has law topic brochures at http://www.nvbar.org/publications/pamphlets.htm. All of the states’ bar associations are accessible by clicking on a state name in Washlaw http://www.washlaw.edu/.

What kinds of legal research sources are jails and prisons required to provide?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

The U.S. Constitution has been understood to say that because people are entitled to represent themselves in criminal court[i] and to have due process in their interactions with the government[ii] they are entitled to legal information sources with which to represent themselves when they are incarcerated.[iii]   The cases explaining why inmates should have access to legal resources do not specify exactly what kinds of resources have to be available. They say that inmates should have “tools” that enable them “to attack their sentences, directly or collaterally, and in order to challenge the conditions of their confinement.”[iv]

While law library access is one helpful tool, the courts more broadly require that somehow the prisons and jails confer “the capability of bringing contemplated challenges to sentences or conditions of confinement before the courts.”[v] When inmates who could not read and did not know English sued a prison for not providing them with this capability, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that a library full of standard English language law books would not make them capable of fighting their convictions or anything about their incarceration.[vi]


[i] Cases have stated that the Sixth Amendment, providing for a right to counsel, also provides criminal defendants with the choice of representing themselves. Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 95 S.Ct 2525 (1975). An article showing how this principle has been followed throughout the country is John Herbrand, Accused’s Right to Represent Himself in State Criminal Proceedings, 98 ALR 3d. 13 (1980- updated through 2006).

[ii] Cruz v. Beto 405 U.S. 319 (1972) (about prisoners’ rights to file grievances about prohibitions against their religious practices in prison); Johnson v. Avery 393 U.S. 483 (1969) (about prisoners’ rights to get assistance with legal document preparation from other inmates); Buchalter v. NY, 319 U.S. 427 (1943). (“action by a state through any of its agencies must be consistent with the fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of our civil and political institutions, which not infrequently are designated as the ‘law of the land.’ Where this requirement has been disregarded in a criminal trial in a state court this court has not hesitated to exercise its jurisdiction to enforce the constitutional guarantee.”)

[iii] Cases declaring that jailed criminal defendants have access to law libraries in jail include Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 97 S.Ct. 1491 (1977) and Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 116 S.Ct 2174 (1996). See also William Lindsley, Penal and Correctional Institutions, 60 Am. Jur. 2d §68 (updated through 2007). Section 68 is about “inmates’ access to courts, legal assistance, and materials.”

[iv] Lewis v. Casey at 518 U.S. 355 and 116 S.Ct. 2182.

[v] Id. at 356, 2182.

[vi] Id. 

Where can you go to conduct legal research?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

 

The general answer to this question is, go to the nearest law library. The most likely law library to be accessible to the public is a county law library, but those are usually only located in the county seat. Some law schools allow the public to use their libraries for independent legal research. But because their purpose is to assist faculty and students with serious scholarly research, rather than to help the public with practical case research, they do not always have the kinds of resources that public patrons would want.

Public libraries often have basic state laws as well as small collections of books that are written for non-lawyers to use in handling legal transactions and court cases. If going to the library is impossible, inquire about getting internet access at community centers or social service agencies. We have leads many good internet sources throughout this blog because we anticipate that accessing those is likely to be more convenient than getting access to a thorough collection of law books.

If you can’t get out on bail and are later proved innocent, can you get paid back for the time you spent in jail?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

When a judge makes a bail decision, he is obligated only to use his best discretion in deciding whether the defendant should be released.  He has to rely on the prosecutor and defense attorney to be thorough and accurate.  It is very hard for individuals representing themselves to collect proof of tasks that the judge and lawyers might have failed to do.  Still, there is research material that a person who was wrongly jailed and wrongly denied bail might want to investigate.

Clearly, a person in jail awaiting trial can suffer losses of money and experience. He might lose pay for missing work or he might lose the job altogether. If he lived in a public place or even in a shelter, he might have lost all of his possessions during the time that he was in jail and unavailable to watch his stuff. If he missed making payments on something because of being in jail, the item might have been repossessed.

He could miss a job interview or someone’s birthday or some other important event. He might have gotten housing if he’d been at a meeting that he couldn’t attend because he was held in jail, waiting for a trial. These losses might not have as much significance if that person is found guilty at his trial and has to spend a long time in prison anyway. But, if the person is found to be innocent, then the justice system has cost him truly unnecessary losses.

Only after the trial is that person in a position to have full proof of his losses because only then, when a court of law has held that he was innocent of the crime he was charged with, can he definitely state that had it not been for the bail denial, he would have been able to continue that job, get into that housing, save his possessions, etc… So, it is in an entirely separate case from his criminal trial that he would seek to make a claim for financial damages.[i] And, like all claims for money damages, the case would be in civil court, rather than criminal court.

There is not a body of legal literature about cases in which innocent people who were denied bail successfully sued the court for damages. This does not mean that there have never been any successful claims like this, but closest body of law is about cases in which people were wrongly convicted and later found innocent.[ii] Nevertheless, here is how a claim might play out:

Being a civil case involving an individual against a government entity, i.e. the court that denied bail, this claim for damages arising from unnecessary jailing would be based on constitutional rights. Likely claims would be violations of Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to life, liberty, and due process.[iii] It has been said that, “In convicting an individual of a crime, the government reaches out to deprive him of life, liberty, or property by execution, jail, or fine.”[iv]

Years ago, a Lawyer-in-Chief of the Office of Professional Responsibility at the U.S. Dep’t. of Justice declared that “There is no other department [of government] that is viewed with comparable terror or fear, because there is no other department that by itself can put you in jail or take your life, liberty or property away from you.”[v] And, a court deciding a case in which a lawyer did not seek pretrial release for two indigent clients firmly stated that, “Any form of pretrial incarceration infringes on an accused’s liberty interest in a powerful and obvious manner.”[vi]

Some people present their due process claim along with a claim that the court violated rules about bail or release on recognizance.[vii] For this research, the innocent person, denied bail, would find the state or local rule of criminal procedure delineating how bail decisions are to be made and would show how that procedure was not properly applied in his case. Then, this unnecessarily jailed claimant would read Title 42 of the U.S. Code §1983[viii] which is about money damages for civil rights violations, and decide whether to include that kind of claim in the case.

NOTE: If you are in jail and are representing yourself in court, you might like The Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook published by the National Lawyers Guild.


[i] Notice that this question and answer are only about financial damages. It is definitely possible to appeal a bail decision in the criminal court system. The procedure for appealing a bail decision is established in criminal court rules. Those rules, and possibly forms to use for the appeal, are likely to be published in the local and state statutes, in individual books titled “(Name of State) Rules of Court”, and in attorney practice manuals for that jurisdiction. The clerk of the criminal court might even have an appeal packet available upon request.

[ii] See the National Registry of Exonerations to read about people who were eventually freed after being wrongly convicted of crimes. For a comparison of cases from throughout the country, See Annotation, Application of State Statute Providing Compensation for Wrongful Conviction and Incarceration, 34 ALR 4th 648 (1984 updated through 2006). In addition to “wrongful conviction,” a related research term for locating law on this topic is “false imprisonment.”

[iii] U.S. CONST. Amend. V, XIV. “No person shall ….be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

[iv] David. P. Currie, Positive and Negative Constitutional Rights, 53 U. Chi. L.Rev. 864, 874 (1986).

[v] Elkin Abramowitz and Peter Scher, The Hyde Amendment: Congress Creates a Toehold for Wrongful Prosecution, 22 Champion 22 (1998). Available at http://www.nacdl.org/CHAMPION/ARTICLES/98mar04.htm quoting from the book MAIN JUSTICE by Jim McGee and Brian Duffy.

[vi] Matter of Rosen, 470 A.2d. 292 (D.C. 1983).

[vii] The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure are at http://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/frcrmp/. State Rules of Criminal Procedure are at http://www.law.cornell.edu/topics/state_statutes2.html#criminal_procedure. Note, however, that a criminal statute might say that bail or other pre-trial release is impossible in connection with a particular crime.

[viii] 42. U.S.C. §1983.

Is it possible to get out on bail if you have no money?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

The purpose of bail is to assure that defendants will return to court for trial after having been formally accused of a crime at a preliminary hearing. The bail agreement between a court and a defendant establishes a defendant’s promise to pay the court a high amount of money which will then be returned to the defendant when he returns for the hearing.

A better assurance that the defendant will be present for trial is to simply keep him in jail, but that contradicts the notion that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.[i] In many states, money does not have to be posted; defendants can be released until trial “on their own recognizance.”[ii] Even in those jurisdictions though, if the court believes either that the defendant is likely to not return for trial or to pose a threat to the public, bail may be imposed to remind the defendant to behave and return for trial or else risk staying in jail until the trial.[iii]

For a homeless person, the reasons for denying him bail, such as: no money to put down as a guarantee, no community roots like a job or house, and no way to track him down are the same issues that can be argued in favor of releasing him on his own recognizance. The fact that a homeless defendant has no money with which to post bail also means that the defendant does not have money to pay for transportation out of the jurisdiction. Not having the responsibilities of a job or house would seem to leave a defendant flexible enough to abscond, but if the defendant has already been living in the jurisdiction without those roots, there is reason to believe that he has no place else to go. Similarly, the lack of an address and the defendant’s status as homeless provide even more routes by which to track him down than anyone who does have a permanent address because the homeless tend to be out in public areas and to repeatedly access particular social services sites.


[i] The presumption of innocence is described and analyzed very thoroughly in 1 Wayne R. LeFave, et al., Criminal Procedure, §1.4 part (d) “Accusatorial Burdens” (2d. Ed. Current through 2006 update.) In support of their analysis, the authors of that authoritative treatise cite to the following U.S. Supreme Court cases: Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513, 525-26, 78 S.Ct. 1332, 1341-2 (1958); Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U.S. 478, 98 S.Ct. 1930 (1978); Bell v. Wofish, 441 U.S. 20, 533, 99 S.Ct 1861, 1871 (1979), and Watts v. Indiana, 338 U.S. 49, 54, 69 S.Ct. 1347, 1350 (1949). For a detailed explanation of the constitutional right to be released on bail, see 8 CJS Bail §20. (CJS is Corpus Juris Secundum, a legal encyclopedia.)

[ii] Lynn C. Cobb, Annotation, Application of State Statutes Establishing Pretrial Release of Accused on Personal Recognizance as Presumptive Form of Release, 78 A.L.R.3d 780 (1977).

[iii] 1 Wayne R. LeFave, et al., Criminal Procedure, §1.4 Part (f) “Minimizing the Burdens of Accusation and Litigation” (2d. Ed. Current through 2006 update.); Lynn C. Cobb, Annotation, Application of State Statutes Establishing Pretrial Release of Accused on Personal Recognizance as Presumptive Form of Release, 78 A.L.R.3d 780, § 2(a) (1977).

What are some of the criminal charges commonly used against the homeless?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

The criminal charges most commonly used against the homeless, in connection with their homelessness, have all been mentioned elsewhere in this blog, but we present them here for quick reference. These are merely summaries; each state or municipality will have its own precise definitions of crimes. Locate your state and local codes through http://www.justia.com/us-states/.  If your local code is not at that site, try this one http://www.spl.org/default.asp?pageID=collection_municodes.

Note that these are all minor charges, typically punished with citations rather than jail time. Since defendants only get a full trial if their crime can be punished with jail time, there is hardly any opportunity to defend against these kinds of charges.

Disorderly conduct – Fighting, making noise, or “creating a hazardous or physically offensive condition”[i] without any legitimate reason and simply for the purpose of creating trouble.

Loitering – Lingering in a place or in a way “not usual for law abiding individuals”[ii] and which creates discomfort among other people nearby.

Obstructing traffic[iii]Blocking a public path so that vehicles or pedestrians either cannot pass or can only pass in an inconvenient way.

Open lewdness[iv]Exposing private parts of one’s own body when it is expected that others will see and possibly be alarmed or offended.

Panhandling[v]Asking people in a public place to give money to you personally without promising to do anything in return. Sometimes called “begging.”

Public nuisance[vi] – Unreasonably interfering with a right common to the general public.

Trespassing[vii] – Entering private property without the owner’s permission.

Vagrancy – This is an archaic term. There was a time when being someone who wandered aimlessly could get someone charged with vagrancy. Now, vagrancy has the same meaning as loitering.


[i] Model Penal Code §250.2

[ii] Model Penal Code §250.6.

[iii] Model Penal Code §250.7

[iv] Model Penal Code §251.1

[v] Barrett A. Lee and Chad R. Farrell, Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime: Homelessness, Panhandling, and the Public, 38 URBAN AFFAIRS REV., 299 (2003).

[vi] Black’s Law Dictionary 1095 (7th Ed. 1999).

[vii] Model Penal Code §221.2

Under what circumstances might your conversations with police count as criminal confessions?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Any time someone voluntarily tells the police about his own involvement in an illegal act, it is a confession that can be used against him.[i] Telling police about tagging along with other people and watching while they committed a crime can be a confession to conspiracy. Casually talking to police can count as a confession even if the police are not asking questions about any particular crime. Admitting a crime to an officer in an undercover disguise can be a confession as well.

Notice that any of these examples could take place before or after being arrested and inside jail or out of police custody altogether. This is because the communications can be regarded as confessions whether or not police custody or arrest is involved.[ii] At least if they do take place while the confessor is under police control, there are some constitutional protections that might keep the confession from being used in a prosecution.

Almost everyone is familiar with the promise that police make on television, “you have the right to remain silent; anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney; if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” These promises are used in real life as well. They developed from the Supreme Court case of Miranda v. Arizona[iii] as ways of warning defendants of two constitutional rights: 1. the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate ones self[iv] and 2. The Sixth Amendment right to have assistance of counsel while defending ones self in a criminal case.[v]

Although they are stated as soon as anyone is arrested on TV, these rights have to be stated in real life only before an interrogation begins or before the police establish a situation which they know is “reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.”[vi] Since several decades before these warnings were required, the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment[vii] has been used to protect criminal defendants whose confessions were forced by torment, teasing, or lying; those confessions cannot be considered believable because of the way they were coerced.[viii] Confessions obtained through fair and proper (due) processes are believable.

Comforting though it may be to know that three constitutional amendments are available for analyzing confessions, criminal defendants cannot forget the timing of when these amendments are useful. First, they exist as protections before a defendant confesses. A defendant who is able to remember that he does not have to be a witness against himself, that a confession cannot be forced from him, and that he has a right to have a lawyer with him during police questioning can avoid confessing altogether.

The second time when these amendments are helpful is long after a confession has taken place. It is past when the police have stopped investigating and have turned the case over to the prosecutor, after the charges have been filed, and when the criminal trial is about to begin. It is then that the defendant’s attorney argues that information gleaned from a forced confession should not be used as evidence against the defendant.[ix] By then, the confession may have been reported in the news and influenced potential jurors. Even if it hasn’t made the news, an illegally obtained confession is inadmissible evidence.[x]


[i] Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291,300, 100 S.Ct. 1682, 1689 (1980); Hoffa v. U.S. 385 U.S. 293, 87 S.Ct. 408 (1966); Dickerson v. U.S., 530 U.S. 428, 120 S.Ct. 2326 (2000).

 

[ii] William E. Ringel, SEARCHES AND SEIZURES, ARRESTS AND CONFESSIONS, (West, 2007) Chapter 27 “‘Custodial Interrogation'” Requirement of Miranda.” See also Chapter 25 “Voluntariness of Confessions and Admissions.”

[iii] Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602 (1966).

[iv] U.S. Constitution Amendment V, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself…”

[v] U.S. Constitution Amendment VI, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

[vi] Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291, 292, 100 S.Ct. 1682, 1685 (1980).

[vii] U.S. CONST. Amend. XIV “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

[viii] Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278, 56 S.Ct. 461 (1936); Ashcraft. V. Tennessee, 322 U.S. 143, 64 S.Ct. 921 (1944).

[ix] A practical demonstration of how to make a case to keep a forced confession from being used as evidence is in 5 Am. Jur. Trials 331(1)(B), Excluding Illegally Obtained Evidence.(updated through February 2007). This source has sample questions to ask of witnesses, samples of documents to file in court, and demonstrations of how to prove various possible claims.

[x] Excluding forced confessions from evidence developed through a series of cases interpreting the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self incrimination. Here is a summary of that evolution http://supreme.lp.findlaw.com/constitution/amendment05/09.html.

Do you always have to leave a place simply because a police officer tells you to move on?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

When the police tell homeless people to move away from where they are, it is usually an unspoken warning that if they do not move, they will be charged with a crime, perhaps the crime of trespassing if they are on private property, maybe loitering or disorderly conduct if they are on public property. Everyone, even people who are not homeless, can get charged if they fail to move away from an area when the police tell them to disperse.

In a 2011 manual titled Criminalizing Crisis, the National Law Center for Homelessness  and Poverty put forth a model order for police departments to implement as a way of instructing police about interacting with homeless people. (The model order is on page 31 of the manual.) This model order includes guidance about when homeless people can be made to “move on”.

This is not a legal issue that is unique to the homeless experience, but it impacts the homeless more than others simply because of where they spend their time. A 1983 Supreme Court case[i] ruled that statutes authorizing police to move people have to specify some sort of illegal action so that “ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”[ii]

The typical disorderly conduct law includes a line stating that when groups of three or more people block a sidewalk or cause some other disturbance, the police can require them to disperse. The exemplary language in the Model Penal Code says, “Where [three] or more persons are participating in a course of disorderly conduct likely to cause substantial harm or serious inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, a peace officer or other public servant engaged in executing or enforcing the law may order the participants and others in the immediate vicinity to disperse.”[iii]

Loitering is the “move along” charge more likely to apply to individuals or pairs. The Model Penal Code version of it says:  “A person commits a violation if he loiters or prowls in a place, at a time, or in a manner not usual for law-abiding individuals under circumstances that warrant alarm for the safety of persons or property in the vicinity. Among the circumstances which may be considered in determining whether such alarm is warranted is the fact that the actor takes flight upon appearance of a peace officer, refuses to identify himself, or manifestly endeavors to conceal himself or any object. Unless flight by the actor or other circumstance makes it impracticable, a peace officer shall prior to any arrest for an offense under this section afford the actor an opportunity to dispel any alarm which would otherwise be warranted, by requesting him to identify himself and explain his presence and conduct.”[iv]

An authority on municipal law, writing about police regulation of sidewalks and streets, says that “the gravamen of the offense is the doing of the prohibited act, and not disobedience to the order of the officer; hence the offense does not depend upon the whim or caprice of the officer.”[v] He may be correct that the charges sound like they can only be applied based on a defendant’s conduct, but in practice it is nearly impossible to dispute a loitering or disorderly conduct charge without sounding argumentative in a way that will convince the judge that you must also have been argumentative with the officer.

Being argumentative with a police officer is enough of an action to create cause for alarm, a component of both disorderly conduct and loitering.[vi] Defending against one of these charges typically requires proof that you were not about to cause a problem.

In loitering cases, there are not likely to be any witnesses available to validate a defendant’s claim about why he was there at that time and whether he seemed threatening. In disorderly conduct cases, whether the defendant’s actions were likely to cause harm, inconvenience, or annoyance is determined by the officer’s own perception.

So the way to avoid trouble in the short-term is to move whenever the police say so, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient it is. In the long-term, it can be legally helpful to keep track of patterns of when police give these move-along orders and which officers tend to give them. If it becomes clear that police simply do not want the homeless in a certain area on Friday and Saturday nights, then avoiding trouble is easy. If it becomes obvious that police are timing their move along orders to interrupt sleep or eating, then the homeless people being disrupted might be able to make a claim of police harassment.  (See the ACLU’s Community Action Manual on “Fighting Police Abuse“.

The National Coalition for the homeless maintains a website about “Criminalization of the Homeless” with summaries of court cases in which vagrancy, curfew and loitering laws have been contested. Anyone planning to argue that those kinds of laws are unjustly written or unfairly applied would be wise to read these case summaries and then look for the full case opinions and cases that reference these cases. http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/crimreport/casesummaries_3.html

[i] Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352; 103 S.Ct. 1855 (1983). [ii] Id. at 357; 1858. [iii] Model Penal Code §250.1 [iv] Model Penal Code §250.6 [v] MCQUILLIN, EUGENE, A TREATISE ON THE LAW OF MUNICIPAL CORPORATIONS 3d Ed., §24.596 (updated through July 2006) [vi] This point is explained in the post about having to identify one’s self to police.  See also the post about what to do if police are rough with you.

When police commit you to the mental hospital, are they entitled to information that you give to the hospital?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

There is not an automatic assumption that the police are entitled to your mental health records simply because it was they who got you to the hospital. Mental health records, like all medical records, are private[i] and are only supposed to be used as evidence in a court case with the patient’s express permission. However, the USA PATRIOT Act and The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) both provide legal ways for law enforcement agencies to obtain people’s medical records.

HIPAA is the law that protects the content of medical records from being used for anything other than the patient’s medical care. However that law does allow medical offices to give private medical records to courts “in response to an order of a court or administrative tribunal, provided that the covered entity discloses only the protected health information expressly authorized by such order; or (ii) In response to a subpoena, discovery request, or other lawful process, that is not accompanied by an order of a court or administrative tribunal.”[ii]

This second section, about subpoenas, specifically allows courts to get medical records directly from health providers without the patient’s permission when the subpoena has been sent to the patient’s last known address.[iii] Obviously, this means that homeless people who do not have a current address on file with their doctor’s office can find that their medical records were admitted into court without their knowledge. HIPAA also allows law enforcement officers (police and the FBI) to get medical records without a patient’s permission when investigating: the identity of a dead body that might be the patient, the identity of a fugitive, or a crime against the patient.[iv]

The USA PATRIOT Act allows the FBI to “make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities…”[v]

Medical records are specifically mentioned in a later section specifying that only the Director or Deputy Director of the FBI or the Executive Assistant Director of National Security can use this law to request a warrant for medical records.[vi]

Even though this question is about how police and prosecutors might obtain medical records to use in bringing criminal charges or proving someone’s guilt in a crime, this is a good place to mention how and when medical records might be used in a civil case in which a homeless person might be suing for a breach of contract or some consumer right. There is no need to worry about the possibility that a civil court opponent will be able to claim “he didn’t pay the rent because he’s crazy” “he’s accusing me of negligence because he’s depressed” or anything like that. There are two protections that keep that kind of remark from getting into court documents or testimony.

First of all, the evidence rules require that only relevant information be presented in a case.[vii] Medical records are relevant in disability claims and medical malpractice claims. In those cases, the medical records are offered as evidence by the patient not the opponent in the case. They are not used to support an accusation against a sick person; they are presented as proof of the patient’s own claim for his rights. In cases about not paying debts or not fulfilling a duty, the health of neither the debtor nor the creditor has anything to do with whether a legal right was violated. The medical records would be irrelevant in relation to those types of legal controversies.

Privacy is the second legal protection against having medical records used as evidence. The medical community has a serious professional obligation to keep those records secret. The few court-related exceptions to that obligation involve limited police investigations, as described in the previous section. As a professional obligation, the rule about privacy in patient records comes not only from the law,[viii] but also from the canons of professional ethics for medical professionals. A doctor or nurse or other licensed medical professional who releases patient information despite the ethics rules can lose his license to practice in that profession.[ix] If you believe this has happened to you, contact your state’s professional licensure office for a complaint form.[x]


[i] On its Web site http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/hipaa/, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides thorough and clear information about the legal obligation to keep medical records private. That site has the full-text of the HIPAA statute enacted by Congress as well as the Health and Human Services regulations detailing how that statute is to be carried out. The site also has questions and answers in plain English and a complaint form that patients can file with the Department if HHS if a doctor’s office releases medical records in violation of the law.

[ii] 45 C.F.R. §164.512(e)(updated through August 2006).

[iii] Id. at § 164.512(e)(iii)(1)(a).

[iv] 45 CFR §164.512(f) (updated through August 2006). This can be a way of assuring that scientific evidence is collected and preserved for trial. A comparable situation has been in state laws for many years allowing hospital emergency rooms to collect hair and fluid samples from rape victims and give them immediately and directly to police investigating the rape.

[v] 50 USC § 1861(a)(1) (as of August 2006).

[vi] Id. at § 1861(a)(3).

[vii] Rule 402 of the Federal Rules of Evidence states that, “All relevant evidence is admissible, except as otherwise provided by the Constitution of the United States, by Act of Congress, by these rules, or by other rules prescribed by the supreme Court pursuant to statutory authority. Evidence which is not relevant is not admissible.” State court systems have their own rules of evidence; all of them model their rule about relevance closely to the federal rule.

[viii] As noted several footnotes ago, the HIPAA statute written by Congress and the regulations written by the Department of Health and Human Services about keeping medical records private are all available for free on the Internet at http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/hipaa/ along with frequently asked questions, clear fact sheets, and a complaint form to file with HHS if a doctor’s office improperly reveals medical record content.

[ix] The American Medical Association has the Principles of Medical Ethics online at http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/category/2498.html. Principle IV is about patient privacy. The American Nursing Association has the nurses’ Code of Ethics at http://www.nursingworld.org/ethics/ecode.htm. A particular hospital’s code of ethics will usually be available from its patient relations or quality control office. The American Hospital Association has explanatory issues pages, including HIPAA as an issue, at http://www.aha.org/aha/issues/index.html.

[x] Professional licenses might be granted by any number of agencies or departments in each state. Look for “medical licensing” in your state government’s home page http://www.state.al.us/ (substitute your state’s two initials for AL) or ask a librarian how to file a licensure complaint against a particular type of professional in your state.

Is it true that the police can have you committed to a mental hospital against your will?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

When the police believe that someone is on the verge of harming another person, they can charge him with making threats, attempted assault, attempted murder, or other crimes that represent movement towards violence. When it appears to the police that the suspect’s mental health is causing ominous behavior, even if the potential violence would be against the suspect himself, they have the authority to take the suspect to a mental hospital for evaluation and possible commitment.

That authority to admit someone to a mental hospital comes not from state crimes codes, but from each state’s mental health laws, which are part of the civil code. For that reason, being admitted to a mental hospital without choosing to be admitted there is sometimes referred to as “civil commitment.” It is also known as “involuntary commitment.” In every state there are different standards for the behavior that warrants commitment and also regarding who can commit another person and how the committed person has to be treated.[i]

Typically, the mental health codes authorize only health professionals to involuntarily commit somebody to a mental hospital. Those laws also indicate what kinds of behavior those health professionals have to witness in order to make the commitment and what can be done with a patient who is admitted that way. Often, the laws will have measurable ways of deciding whether to commit someone, for example: threatening suicide within the past twenty-four hours or being delusional to the point of not being able to respond to the officers in a normal way.[ii]

Laws about the hospital’s obligations for handling someone who has been involuntarily committed tend to declare how soon and how thoroughly the patient has to be evaluated by a psychiatrist. The state mental health laws also dictate how an involuntarily committed mental patient can argue against the commitment.

Those sections of law usually require that a legal hearing be convened. At the hearing, the goal is to ascertain if the legal problem, i.e. the risk of harm to self or others, will still exist if the involuntarily committed person is released from the hospital. Because this is a legal proceeding involving interpretation of statutes, state laws require that indigent mental health patients be represented by a court-appointed attorney or public defender or a privately hired lawyer at the commitment hearing.

Despite the existence of legal procedures intended to protect the rights of people involuntarily committed to mental institutions, The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law strongly opposes those commitments.[iii] The Center’s years of legal work on behalf of the mentally ill and their observation of involuntary commitments has convinced them that the practice is only acceptable in the case of a true emergency. Recognizing that “outpatient commitment” is ordered as the result of many of those hearings that the law requires with involuntary commitments, the Bazelon Center has a long list of reasons that they oppose involuntary outpatient commitments as well.[iv]


[i] The treatment advocacy keeps track of state commitment laws. http://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/browse-by-state The states’ basic standards for behavior that will lead to involuntary commitments are also included in that chart. To find a state’s mental health laws on your own, the best strategy is to look in the index to the state’s statutory code for topics that come under the heading of “mental health” or “health and welfare-mental” or “health and human services-mental.”

[ii] See, Linda A. Teplin, Police Discretion and Mentally Ill Persons, National Institute of Justice Journal, July 2000, pp.9-15. This article carefully explains how and when police decide whether to take a suspect to a mental institution rather than arresting him. At the end are footnotes referencing government reports as well as other journal articles from the fields of psychology and sociology all of which involve issues connected with police handling of mental health patients in crisis.

[iii] The Bazelon Center’s position statement is available at http://www.bazelon.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=BG1RhO3i3rI%3d&tabid=324. The Bazelon Center’s Web site also has summaries of court cases about involuntary commitments and overviews of major scholarly research studies about outpatient mental health commitments.

[iv] Id. 

The Council of State Governments Justice Center creates and compiles a lot of authoritative information about police interactions with people who have mental illness.

Do you have to answer questions from the police if they are not accusing you of wrongdoing?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

A previous post conveys that the police are required to give citizens the benefit of the doubt in potential loitering situations by asking them about their identity and purpose. Clearly, police have legal authority and legitimate public safety reasons for asking questions of people on the streets. Simply asking about someone to tell his name or show proof of identity is a perfectly legal thing for law enforcement officers to do.[i]

Some states have a specific statute requiring members of the public to identify themselves to the police.[ii] The Supreme Court has held that police can arrest anyone who does not identify himself when asked to by police.[iii] In that Supreme Court case, police were following up on a report about an assault. When the officer arrived at the scene and came upon a drunken man, he asked the man, multiple times, to identify himself but was refused every time which not only kept him from fully investigating that potential suspect, but also delayed him in pursuing other possible suspects.

The officer arrested the intoxicated man in accordance with the state’s “stop and identify” statute. The arrested man later sued the police claiming that his Constitutional rights of freedom from unwarranted search and seizure and his right not to incriminate himself had been violated. But the Supreme Court declared that stating one’s name does not convey enough information to be incriminating and that asking about identity is reasonably related to investigating a crime scene, and is not an unreasonable search.

Usually, when the police ask for people’s identification information they are seeking information not only about the names of these folks in the area but also about crimes that have been reported in the neighborhood. Collecting information by stopping people and questioning them is a basic investigative technique.

When they suspect that the person they have stopped is connected with a crime, patting him down to search for weapons is a legally permissible action for police to take. This practice was questioned and approved long ago in a Supreme Court case called Terry v. Ohio.[iv] If the pat-down search yields evidence connecting the suspect to the crime, that evidence can be used in the criminal trial against that suspect even though the police conducted the search without getting a warrant.

Routine police questioning happens when the police have set-up a system of questioning and are following that system. They could, for example, question everybody who matches the description of a suspect or everyone who might have been in that same vicinity when a crime occurred. Routinely stopping the same innocent person for questioning unrelated to an investigation would be abnormal police practice. It might even be harassment. It might be worth reporting to the police department’s disciplinary office , your local police review committee –list available from National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, the American Civil Liberties Union,[v] or any local homeless advocacy service for investigation.[vi]

There is quite a body of law about what happens when people get in altercations with the police.[vii] Generally, the law concludes that the police are allowed to restrain or detain people who give them a hard time because there is a risk that the scene will arouse trouble involving other people present in the area. Some have argued that if they cannot use “offensive, derisive or annoying words”[viii] against the police, their free speech has been compromised. But, the Supreme Court says that kind of communication could “incite an immediate breach of the peace”[ix] and is therefore in the category of hate speech, not protected under the First Amendment’s free speech clause.

People who do not carry identification documents, even those who used to carry identification until it was confiscated or not returned in a previous police encounter, need to remember the legal rationale for why the police ask for identification before getting mad at the officers. This is yet another legal situation in which knowledge of the law might not help someone once he gets in trouble, but can help someone to avoid getting into trouble.

Certainly, homeless people have historical and legitimate reasons to believe that if they identify themselves to police, the officers will check for any outstanding arrest warrants against them. Realizing, though, that the police are likely to be asking about identity as a way of investigating a particular person or crime or else trying to ascertain whether someone is drunk, drugged, or dangerous might lead a person to put effort into assuring the police that he is none of those and that he might even be helpful to the officers.

If the officer simply wants information and he is given that information when he asks for it, then the transaction is over. The officer has done his investigative task and now has other things to do. If the person who has been asked for the information is not or was not committing a crime, does not give the officer a reason to suspect him of existing or potential wrongdoing, and does not distract the officer from his investigative task by acting surly, there is no reason for that officer to arrest or cite him.

On the other hand, there are plenty of legal records showing that police can be abusive.[x] Some courts have held that police officers are entitled to a certain amount of lenience in controlling their tempers and actions because their work is unusually stressful and they are at constant risk of facing dangerous and uncontrolled people.[xi] The obvious counter argument has also been made; the police have more training and experience than anyone to deal with emergencies, danger, and the wide array of public behavior and therefore the public should be able to expect police to control themselves under pressure.[xii]

No matter which of these opposing perspectives a court has, it will still acknowledge that police officers are allowed to use their own discretion in judging how necessary it might be to handcuff and arrest someone who does not answer their questions while they are trying to investigate and control a situation.[xiii] Knowing that the legal system entitles police officers to use that discretion, an individual can try to get the officers’ discretion in his favor by acknowledging the broad legal context of being questioned, rather than responding as if he is being accused or criticized.


[i] Internal Revenue Service v. Delgado, 466 U.S. 210, 2116 (1984).

[ii] Find “stop and identify” statutes by looking for phrases like “interference with police” “obstructing police” “obstruction of justice” and “resisting arrest” in the state crimes code; a law against failing to identify yourself to police is likely to be included as a component of one of those crimes. Articles commenting on “stop and identify” laws include: Shelli Calland, Stop and identify statutes do not violate the Fourth or Fifth Amendments, 40 HARV. C.R.-C.L. L. REV., 251 (2005); James G. Warner, Dudley Do Wrong: Analysis of a Stop and Identify Statute, 39 AKRON L. Rev. 245 (2006). See also: What Constitutes Offense of Obstructing or Resisting Officer, 48 ALR 746.

[iii] Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada, Humboldt City, 542 U.S. 177, 124 S. Ct. 2451 (2004).

[iv] Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868. (1968).

[v] The chapters and affiliate offices of the ACLU are listed at http://www.aclu.org/affiliates/index.html

[vi] The National Coalition for the Homeless maintains a list of organizations doing homelessness advocacy http://www.nationalhomeless.org/resources/state/index.html.

[vii] Michael G. Walsh, Annotation, Insulting Words Addressed Directly to Police Officer as Breach of Peace or Disorderly Conduct, 14 ALR4th 1252 (1982). This is an article summarizing scores of cases from all over the country.

[viii] Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 at 573; 62 S. Ct. 766, at 770 (1942).

[ix] Id. at 572 and 769.

[x] The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has a collection of legal information about police misconduct including news reports, legal documents from court cases, legislative resources, and fact sheets available for anyone to download. https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/police-practices

[xi] There is a detailed discussion of this perspective in Pavish v. Meyers, 225 P.633 (Wash. 1924). Duncan v. U.S., 219 A2d. 110 (D.C. App., 1966) remanded on other grounds 379 F.2d. 148; City of St. Petersburg v. Calbeck, 121 So.2d 814 (Fla. App. 1960); St. Paul v. Morris, 104 N.W. 2d. 902 (Minn. 1960) cert. denied 365 U.S. 815. State v.McKenna, 415 A.2d. 729 (RI., 1980) “We believe the officers justifiably reacted in anger as any group of persons of average sensibilities would have.”; Com. v. Hock, 696 A.2d 225 (Pa. Super., 1997) “we agree with the majority of states which “can conceive of no reason why a police officer, or other public official responsible for maintaining law and order, should have to be the object of obscenities and vulgarities of the type which, if addressed to a layman, would have a direct tendency to incite him to acts of violence.” [Citing Bale v. Ryder, 290 A.2d 359 (Me. 1972)].

[xii] Chicago v. Blakemore, 305 NE2d 687 (Ill. App, 1973); People v. Slaton, 322 N.E.2d 533 (Ill. App. 1974); Swann v. Huntsville, 455 So.2d 944 (Ala. Crim. App. 1984).

[xiii] See MCQUILLIN, EUGENE, A TREATISE ON THE LAW OF MUNICIPAL CORPORATIONS 3d Ed., §45.18 (updated through July 2006) for a thorough explanation of police duties and arrest powers. Footnotes following that explanation lead to cases and statutes across the country. Note, however that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a local ordinance that made it “unlawful for any person to assault, strike or in any manner oppose, molest, abuse or interrupt any policeman in the execution of his duty, or any person summoned to aid in making an arrest.” The Court held that the statute was so broad and vague that it violated the First Amendment right to free speech because almost anything that anyone might ever say to a police officer could be construed as an interruption. Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 41, 107 S.Ct. 2501 (1987).

When can you use a post office box instead of a street address?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

In general, a post office box can be used instead of a street address when establishing a place for people to send mail, but not when someone needs to identify himself to the government. For example, street address is normally required for obtaining a government-issued photo I.D., registering a car, and applying for jobs.

Here is one handy work-around that works when the post office has competition from another nearby delivery service:

Post office box customers can use the post office’s street address as their street address and identify their P.O. Box number just within the zip code of that street address. The rule explaining this is at Section 4.5.4 of the Domestic Mail Manual, under the topic of “competitive P.O. Box services.”  http://pe.usps.gov/text/dmm300/508.htm#1141179 The phrase “competitive P.O. Box services” means that the post office in that neighborhood has to compete with a UPS store or a similar private business that offers package delivery services. So, if somebody has post office box #1234, and his post office is located at 100 Main St. in Long Beach, California, he can tell everyone that his street address is 100 Main Street, Long Beach, California, 90808-1234.

Applying for a job doesn’t sound like communicating with the government, but the communication is indirect; employers are required to make payments to the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service on behalf of employees. They have to identify each employee by name, social security number, and address in order to make those payments.

When registering to vote, it is permissible for a homeless person to give the street address of a relative or an agency he or she is involved with. But it is also necessary to identify where you reside or expect to continue residing (name the park, bridge, or other location specifically) because the voting system is intended to appoint representatives for populations according to their geographic designations. The National Coalition for the Homeless has a full explanation, resources for registering or even coordinating a voter registration event, and advocacy materials available at  http://nationalhomeless.org/campaigns/voting/.

There is not merely one law stating that people have to give the government their street address. Instead, there are minute regulations, many separate hard-to-find requirements by government agencies, declaring when and where addresses are to be used in each agency’s conduct of business.

Criminal law requirements for homeless contact information are generally stricter than the procedures in the social services codes. Probation rules and sex offender registries, for example, require that offenders provide a street address where they can be located if an officer comes looking for them; living on the street is simply not an option. A homeless shelter or halfway house address may be used if the offender truly resides there, but the probation and sex offender registry rules additionally require that offenders report to an agent on a regular basis and immediately notify police authorities of any change in their whereabouts.[i]

The agencies involved with housing and health and income services, for example HUD (Housing and Urban Development) and HHS (Health and Human Services), which routinely interact with the homeless population have ways for people to access their services by communicating through channels other than mail or by having the mail sent to places where clients do not live, but can at least check-in.


[i] Sample sex offender registry statutes show the variety of ways states verify street addresses:
California “Beginning on or before the 30th day following initial registration upon release, a transient must re-register no less than once every 30 days thereafter.” Cal. Penal Code §290(c)(1).

Connecticut “the Department of Public Safety shall verify the address of each registrant by mailing a non-forwardable verification form to the registrant at the registrant’s last reported address. Such form shall require the registrant to sign a statement that the registrant continues to reside at the registrant’s last reported address and return the form by mail by a date which is ten days after the date such form was mailed to the registrant. The form shall contain a statement that failure to return the form or providing false information is a violation of section 54-251, 54-252, 54-253 or 54-254, as the case may be. Each person required to register under section 54-251, 54-252, 54-253 or 54-254 shall have such person’s address verified in such manner every ninety days after such person’s initial registration date.” Ct. Gen. Stat. Ann. §54-257(c).

District of Columbia “The procedures and requirements [of the offender registration agency] may include….(1) Verify address information or other information at least annually, or at more frequent intervals as specified by the Agency;(2) Return address verification forms;(3) Appear in person for purposes of verification;(4) Cooperate in the taking of fingerprints and photographs, as part of the verification process; and (5) Update any information that has changed since any preceding registration or verification as part of the verification process.” DC Code §22-4008(a).

Florida “Each time a sexual offender’s driver’s license or identification card is subject to renewal, and, without regard to the status of the offender’s driver’s license or identification card, within 48 hours after any change in the offender’s permanent or temporary residence or change in the offender’s name by reason of marriage or other legal process, the offender shall report in person to a driver’s license office”…. “A sexual offender who vacates a permanent residence and fails to establish or maintain another permanent or temporary residence shall, within 48 hours after vacating the permanent residence, report in person to the sheriff’s office of the county in which he or she is located.” Fl. Stat. Ann. §943.0435 (4)(a)&(b).

What are the legal requirements for getting an address? If trailers have addresses, can you get one for another parked vehicle?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

In the United States, all land is presumed to belong to the government unless an individual or entity holds title to it. So, a person cannot simply settle comfortably on some land, or park a vehicle there, and try to get an address for it. Getting a home address begins with the government’s making the land available for private residence. Then a real estate developer, or whoever has bought the land from the government, gets the first title to it and records his title at the deeds office, usually a component of the county government.  If you need to find out who owns a piece of land, you are allowed to search for the deed because it is a public record held at the deeds office.

Title is legal ownership of land. A deed is the document showing that someone has title to a piece of land. The deeds office identifies pieces of land by giving them block and lot numbers, known as the legal address. When the landowner applies for local permits to build structures on that land, a street address (the address used by the postal service) is assigned to it. If a landowner opts to make a trailer park on his land, then his building permit will establish street addresses for the separate spaces in the trailer park.

Look for more information about real estate law at Nolo.com and Justia.

When you sleep in an airport or at a train or bus station are you in a public place or privately owned place and what legal rights or responsibilities do you have when resting there?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Transportation stations are usually under the control of government authorities and, as such, are considered public places. The possession posts, the bathing posts and the food posts  all apply in public transportation stations. Like parks and government office buildings, they can have limited access. They might be closed to non-ticket holders after a certain hour. They might allow sleeping only in designated passenger areas. And, as in any other public places, the local loitering or vagrancy laws apply there.[i]

.
Being public in nature, if not in fact,[ii] (because sometimes they are owned by a bus or train company) their restrooms, lighting, chairs, vending machines, and other amenities are generally available to anyone who might come in. In privately owned stations, economic reasons like the high expense of having staff and procedures to remove people and the loss of prospective future business are behind this access; it just isn’t worth the money to try and keep out non-passengers. But having seating and restrooms for non-passengers and cleaning up after them cost money too. When people make excessive use of the amenities without using the facility for its intended service, it becomes economically necessary to have the police do vagrancy arrests.

Despite the various legal forms of exclusion, homeless people are visible and numerous in transportation stations. Service providers and the police look for them there. In fact, the Code of Federal Regulations requires Veterans Administration outreach workers to look for needy homeless veterans in bus and train stations.[iii] Searching for veterans, they reach out to every homeless person they encounter. This uninvited, though potentially helpful, attention raises a question about homeless people’s legal rights in transportation centers: whether they have to accept help or even listen to helpful offers.
There is certainly no law providing for peace and quiet when a person sits down to rest or lies down to sleep in a transportation station. There is, however, a crime of “disturbing the peace” which groups of homeless might invoke if they felt imposed-upon by do-gooders.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines disturbing the peace as, “[i]nterruption of the peace, quiet and good order of a neighborhood or community, particularly by unnecessary and distracting noises.”[iv] Each locality has its own ordinance defining breach of the peace or disturbing the peace. Any citizens whose peace is breached can ask police to charge the perpetrator. People do that when the neighbor’s dog barks too much. Why couldn’t people trying to rest in bus stations try it, at least when they are directly and intentionally interrupted by people demanding their attention?

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Aside from trying that revolutionary tactic for warding off social services, it is also possible to simply say, “go away” or “no thank you.” The law does not require people to hear or read messages that they do not want to get. We know this from the logic of First Amendment free speech cases. When civil rights lawyers argue that someone has a right to say something, they assert that listeners have equal free speech rights to respond to, criticize, or ignore the message. A famous court opinion about the Nazi party’s right to wear swastikas and demonstrate in a U.S. Jewish community concluded with this declaration: “direct the citizens of Skokie that it is their burden to avoid the offensive symbol.”[v]


[i] People v. Guilbert, 472 N.Y.S.2d 90 (N.Y. Crim. Ct. 1983); People v. Goodwin. 519 N.Y.S.2d 189 (N.Y. Crim. Term 1987).

[ii] The Supreme Court explained why and how a privately owned train station has certain obligations as a public place in Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S.454 (1960). That case was brought by an African American man who was refused service at a restaurant in a Trailways bus terminal. The Supreme Court held that “When a bus carrier has volunteered to make terminal and restaurant facilities and services available to its interstate passengers as a regular part of their transportation, and the terminal and restaurant have acquiesced and cooperated in this undertaking, the terminal and restaurant must perform these services without discriminations prohibited by the [Interstate Commerce] Act.” Id. at 454.

[iii] 38 C.F.R. § 61.81 (2007).  http://www.ecfr.gov 

[iv] Black’s Law Dictionary 477 (6th ed. 1990).

[v] Skokie v. National Socialist Party, 373 N.E.2d 21, 26 (Ill. App. Ct. 1978).

What sorts of shelter protection does the law require in the event of a weather emergency?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

One of the best places to start answering this question is in newspaper articles about lawsuits arising from past weather emergencies.  Go to the online version of your local newspaper or to papers from other cities that have had major tornadoes, blizzards, etc… and see if there are articles telling who sued, what legal grounds they claimed, and how their cases turned out.  You probably remember the names of the significant storms in your area; use those, along with “sued” or “lawsuit” or “legal”,  as your search terms in the newspaper site.  Since court cases are public, you want to look for dates, claimants’ names, and court identification in these news articles.  Then, at least if you found some local cases, you can go to the court clerk’s office and look through the documents filed in the case to get ideas about writing your own.

Local and county governments make emergency plans for dealing with severe weather and they rely on state and federal programs for additional support in extreme circumstances.[i]   Plans are not laws, but because they set forth obligations for government units, they have a degree of legal authority. They are assurances from the government to the people and the people have a right to expect that those assurances will be fulfilled to the best of the government’s ability.

The authority to make county and municipal emergency plans, which necessarily disrupt and alter ordinary local government responsibilities, comes from state statutes.[ii] Protection rights for the homeless during weather emergencies can arise in connection with these plans and the fact that the plans are authorized by statutes.

After a weather emergency, the legal question a victim of the weather asks is “can I sue the government for not doing enough to help?” The answer is “maybe.”

The victims could say that the government had a duty to protect them or rescue them or provide post-emergency help. They could say that by not fulfilling their duty, the government caused harm to come to the populace. It would be a basic negligence analysis.

There are two likely challenges to this seemingly easy analysis: the doctrine of sovereign immunity and the difficulty of proving exactly what duty the government owed. It can also be hard to prove that government inaction was the cause of harm when it is obvious that the severe weather itself was the true cause; at most the government can only be a contributing cause to a victim’s continued exposure to the weather.[iii]

The doctrine of sovereign immunity can come from cases or statutes in either state or federal legal analysis. It says that the government is immune from being sued.[iv]  In every jurisdiction, there are numerous exceptions to this doctrine.[v]

—-  The Federal Tort Claims Act,[vi] is a blanket exception to sovereign immunity, entitling people to sue the federal government for just about any action other than those that are based on discretion. It allows that the federal government can be sued for negligent acts or omissions in weather emergencies.[vii] The Federal Emergency Management Association was sued by approximately 250,000 people asserting that the agency owed them adequate temporary housing after Hurricane Katrina.[viii] —-

The only way to know if any state’s doctrine of sovereign immunity makes it impossible to sue for injuries in a particular circumstance is to study the state’s law and compare it to what happened to the person wanting to sue.

 —- To find a state’s sovereign immunity law or laws, look in the alphabetical index to any state code under “government liability,” “state liability,” or “government immunity” to see the circumstances under which they say that the state cannot be held liable. Some states have just one sovereign immunity law; others include it within numerous topical categories such as law enforcement, utility service, waterways, etc… —-

When a state’s sovereign immunity laws do not prevent people from holding emergency workers liable in weather emergencies, injured people have the chance to bring a negligence claim in court.[ix] This is when they have to show that the government breached its duty. To prove duty, it is most effective to show specific obligations that the government itself has described.  Some sources of those are the local weather emergency plans mentioned earlier in this post.

Here are some sample weather emergency plans for homeless populations:

In Boston, the Emergency Shelter Commission compiles an electronic guide to expanded hours and spaces at shelters. The guide also states that the EMS service, the park rangers, and the police will drive around looking for homeless people and will help them get out of the bad weather.[x]

In Allegheny County Pennsylvania, the Bureau of Hunger and Housing Services operates one facility called the Severe Weather Emergency Shelter when the temperature goes down to twenty degrees; there is freezing rain, heavy snow, or an extreme wind chill; or when the National Weather Service has declared an emergency weather situation.[xi] Baltimore also opens one specific facility to operate as a shelter for the homeless in extreme weather.[xii] Milwaukee police dispatch an outreach team to help street dwellers get inside when the weather is extremely cold.

In all of the known areas where homeless people sleep, Mahoning County, Ohio posts notices titled “There is a Warm Place to Sleep.” The notices tell the homeless how to get in contact with the area Rescue Mission.[xiii] New York City used to have an entire Homeless Outreach Unit in its police department. In dangerous weather, that unit would make the rounds of known homeless hangouts and helps the inhabitants get to safe places.  The city still has an entire department of homeless services. [xiv]

In claiming that Boston or New York (when it used to offer pick-up service) was negligent for not saving him from a blizzard, a homeless person could assert that emergency workers did not drive to a known homeless settlement looking for people needing a ride to shelter. In Anchorage, someone might claim that the database of cold weather shelters did not have correct information.  In Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the strongest negligence claims would assert that the emergency shelters weren’t opened or else that they weren’t sufficient.

Being able to prove that any of these duties exist is only the first part of proving negligence. Even if a plaintiff is able to prove all of the parts of the negligence analysis, there will almost surely be a response from the government asserting that the homeless person contributed to causing his own weather-related suffering. This kind of response will differ depending on each homeless person’s circumstances. But it might say that the homeless person should have gotten himself to a shelter before the weather got so bad or that he should have taken advantage of the local free shoes and coats program or that he simply should have found a phone and called the free emergency line.

In almost every community, it is appropriate to dial 911 (or 311 or 411-the local emergency line), which is a free call from pay phones, to seek help in a weather emergency. Operators at these call centers will tell callers where they can get shelter and will generally ask for information that they can relay back to rescue workers. They might want to know how many other homeless people are with the one who is calling and whether any of those people have known vulnerabilities or medical problems. The police will not necessarily be available to transport stranded people, but the city or the health department may have made transportation arrangements with a local organization or volunteers.


[i] The federal statute establishing the backup system for emergency responses is 42 USC § 5121 et seq. (2007).  There is a wealth of information available in William C. Nicholson, Emergency Response and Emergency Management Law, (2003).  Note that the National Coalition for the Homeless has collected city phone numbers to call for help in a weather emergency as well as data about community standards for helping homeless people when temperatures are very cold.  In a lawsuit, this data could be used to assert either that a particular community is below par or is doing as well as any ordinary community would do.

[ii] To find state laws authorizing local governments to make emergency plans, link from the list of links to each state government’s emergency service agencies at http://www.statelocalgov.net/50states-public-safety.cfm. If that doesn’t work, look in the state code under “disaster preparation” and “emergency planning.” At least one of those phrases should get you to the right information. See also: Howard D. Swanson, The Delicate Art of Practicing Municipal Law Under Conditions of Hell and High Water, 76 N.D. L. Rev. 487 (2000), which is a detailed explanation of how local government adjusts to best help the public in disasters. It has a list of state emergency statutes in footnote 10.

[iii] Springer v. U.S., 641 F. Supp. 913 (D.S.C. 1986). In this case, the National Weather Service was liable for failing to amend a weather forecast when it was known that airline pilots would make flying decisions based on the forecast. In other words, the weather would not have harmed the flyer if he had not been in it and he would not have been in it if the forecast had properly warned him.

[iv] One example is Kentucky, Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 39A.280 (West 2006), declaring that emergency personnel cannot be held liable for failing to help people unless their lack of help was gross negligence.

[v]A weather-related exception, occasionally seen in federal law, is that the National Weather Service can be held liable for harm or loss resulting from an incorrect weather forecast. But, there are limited circumstances when it is legal to hold the weather service liable. Springer, 641 F. Supp. at 913, found them liable (as described in the earlier note), but that was for failing to post the amended and more accurate information that should have been made available to the plane pilot. Brown v. U.S., 790 F. 2d 199 (1st Cir., 1986) declared that the National Weather Service was not liable for a faulty weather forecast even though four fishermen died in a terrible storm after relying on the forecast. The court held that weather forecasting is exempt from liability because it is a discretionary function. In other words, it is work that involves interpretation and judgment. The Federal Tort Claims Act 28 U.S.C. §2671et. seq. entitles people to sue the federal government for personal injuries, but not when the government’s work or decision was discretionary.–In state law, the phrase “qualified immunity” is a variation of sovereign immunity that says governments can be sued but not for discretionary functions. Use both “sovereign” and “qualified” as search terms for government immunity. A weather related exception seen in state laws is that highway departments are not immune from liability when they fail to repair potholes or other street damage caused by weather. N.Y. Town Law § 65-a (McKinney 2006); 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8522(b)(4)&(5) (West 2006).

[vi] 28 USC § 2671, et seq. (2006).

[vii] 28 USC §§ 2672, 2674 (2006).

[viii] Laura Parker, After Katrina, courts flooded by lawsuits, USA Today, Jan. 15, 2006 available at http://usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-01-15-katrina-suits_x.htm.

[ix] Ken Lerner, Governmental Negligence Liability Exposure in Disaster Management, 23 Urb. Law. 333 (1991). This is a clear and detailed journal article telling all of the angles from which to make a negligence claim about a government’s emergency response.

[x] The City of Boston Emergency Shelter Commission has a Web page at http://www.cityofboston.gov/dnd/services.asp.

[xi] The Allegheny County plan is available at http://www.county.allegheny.pa.us/Human-Services/Programs-Services/Basic-Needs/Winter-Shelter.aspx. Note that the shelter and the majority of homeless people in that county are in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

[xii] Baltimore’s “Code Blue” program is a collaborative effort between the Health Department and the Department of Housing and Community Development. “Code Blue” Program, available at http://health.baltimorecity.gov/emergency-preparedness-response/code-blue

[xiii] The Anchorage plan for cold weather is at http://www.muni.org/Departments/health/Pages/ColdWeatherPlan.aspx.

[xiv] New York City’s Department of Homeless Services is described at http://www.nyc.gov/html/dhs/html/home/home.shtml.  Here is New York’s cold weather procedure document.