Federal Judge David O. Carter Friday denied Orange County’s request to modify his temporary restraining order halting the county’s eviction of homeless people on the Santa Ana Riverbed.

County attorneys claimed the injunction appears to apply to the whole riverbed, but Carter, in his order denying the county’s request, said the area has already been defined in a previous federal court case, which defines the area from south of Ball Road/Taft Avenue to the 5 freeway along the Santa Ana Riverbed.

In their request for the temporary restraining order (TRO) modification, the county also asked if they have the ability to stop people from setting up camp in the riverbed, enforce trespass laws for people underneath bridges and on the bottom of the channel.

“(1) What parts of the Santa Ana Riverbed does the TRO apply?; (2) Is the County enjoined from citing individuals for other trespassing citations such as being on the levee slopes, low bridges, bottom of the riverbed channel, areas that are not currently occupied, and areas closed to the public (other than the Project Area)?; and, (3) is the County enjoined from stopping additional persons from setting up camp in the SA Riverbed?” reads the county’s request, signed by attorney Marianne Van Riper.

The riverbed is slated to be closed for over three miles, from Ball Road/Taft Avenue, bordering Anaheim and Orange, to Memory Lane, bordering Garden Grove and Santa Ana. County officials said the proposed closure is for a maintenance project along the riverbed. Carter said his order applies to that area.

The Feb. 6 injunction came on the heels of a lawsuit filed against the county for its eviction efforts that began Jan. 22, when sheriff’s deputies walked tent to tent and told the homeless they had to start packing up and leaving, or else face citation and arrest, but gave no deadline.

A week after the evictions began, attorney Brooke Weitzman filed a federal lawsuit against the county and the cities of Anaheim, Orange and Costa Mesa for enacting and enforcing anti-camping and anti-loitering laws that “criminalize” the homeless. Weitzman, along with attorney Carol Sobel, argue the lack of shelter beds for the county’s homeless leave many on the street, where they will be inevitably ticketed and arrested. The suit was filed on behalf of Orange County Catholic Worker, a charity that aides homeless people and seven homeless individuals.

Enforcement efforts kicked up Feb. 1 when officers from the probation and parole departments accompanied sheriff’s deputies and started doing parole and probation checks, along with warrant checks on the homeless still living in the riverbed.

Shortly after the enforcement increased, Weitzman filed a request for a preliminary injunction hearing, which Carter set for Feb. 13.

But the county planned to up its enforcement one step further by ticketing and arresting people Feb. 7. The county filed its request to modify and clarify the order that same day.

“The decision to began enforcing trespass laws was a collaborative decision among the unified command who have been working together during the entirety of this project…,” Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun said in a Friday text message. “After more than a month of notice, and two weeks of full closure, we did not see reasonable progress with individuals voluntarily relocating.”  

Senior Assistant County Counsel Marianne Van Riper told Weitzman, via email, Feb. 6 that sheriff’s deputies and public works employees “have observed that the rate of voluntary compliance with the District’s direction to leave the Project area have effectively stalled out, for whatever reason.

“Consequently, beginning tomorrow morning (Feb. 7), OCSD (sheriff’s) personnel will begin advising people remaining on the District Santa Ana Riverbed property that they must vacate or may be cited and/or arrested for trespassing,” reads Van Riper’s email.

Sobel filed a request with Carter Feb. 6 for an emergency temporary restraining order. Within hours, Carter granted Sobel’s request and denied any continued eviction enforcement on the riverbed until at least Feb. 13.

A sheriff’s lieutenant echoed some of Van Riper’s claims in a sworn declaration accompanying the county’s request to modify the order.

“For a period of time, between January 22, 2018 and approximately January 30, 2018, the deputies under my command and I observed decent progress on people leaving the Project Area voluntarily,” Jeffrey Puckett said in his declaration.

“However, on or about January 30th or 31st, observable progress in people leaving the encampments began to slow. My deputies began reporting seeing a lot of ‘busywork’, or, to put it more plainly, actions such as people moving items from one side of their campsite to another, and then back again, or raking dirt in front of their tents,” Puckett said.  

Puckett also said deputies were going to read an admonishment to homeless individuals that would tell them they would have the remainder of the day to pack up if they were trying to get social services from the county Health Care Agency or leave in two hours if they weren’t talking with the agency.

“This area has been closed to public access for a County of Orange Environmental Remediation Project in conjunction with OC Public works, Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Health Care Agency. If you refuse to leave this area, you will be in violation of the California Penal Code Section 602 — Trespassing. You have two hours to leave the area. Failure to do so could result in citation or arrest. Will you comply with the deputies’ directions?” reads the admonishment included in Puckett’s declaration.

From Jan. 22 to Feb. 5, approximately 116 tons of “debris” and 4,065 needles have been removed. There have been 79 arrests from Jan. 22 to Feb. 9, according to a news release sent out by the county.

On Wednesday, a second federal court case was filed against the county by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County on behalf of the disabled homeless on the riverbed.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

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