FRESNO – Today, The ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Fresno, urging the court to strike down a new law that targets unhoused people, and puts unconstitutional restrictions on advocates and reporters who try to draw attention to how the unhoused are treated during encampment sweeps.
Last month, city officials amended an existing ordinance to create a buffer zone around abatement activity, like encampment sweeps, taking place on public property. Anyone who enters the off-limits area “without express authorization” from the city can now be charged with a misdemeanor or fined up to $250.
“This is an outrageously broad ordinance that threatens criminal sanctions against those who want to observe, document, or report on the City’s actions,” said Chessie Thacher, a senior staff attorney for the Democracy & Civic Engagement program at the ACLU of Northern California. “It’s a direct assault not just on our plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, but on everyone’s rights.”
The ACLU and the California Homeless Union, represented by the Law Offices of Anthony D. Prince, filed the complaint in the United States District Court, Eastern District of California on behalf of Dez Martinez, a longtime advocate who was once unhoused, Robert McCloskey, a reporter and activist, the Fresno Homeless Union, and Faith in the Valley.
Advocates, organizers, and the media play a critical watchdog role during encampment sweeps when city workers often forcibly remove unhoused persons and destroy their possessions. The lawsuit notes that advocates once prevented an unhoused individual from being run over by a bulldozer during a sweep.
“By removing the people who keep officials accountable, this ordinance puts people who have nowhere else to live directly in harm’s way,” said Anthony D. Prince, general counsel for the California Homeless Union. “Instead of addressing the housing crisis, Fresno is targeting individuals and organizations who are on the ground working with the unhoused.”
The Fresno ordinance is part of the intensifying war against unhoused people occurring all over California, which the ACLU documented in a recent report, “Outside the Law: The Legal War Against Unhoused People.
Plaintiff Dez Martinez is the founder of We Are Not Invisible and Homeless in Fresno. She regularly visits encampments, organizes residents and distributes aid, documents encampment sweeps, and posts videos to her 14K followers on social media. According to the complaint, the city began drafting the new ordinance restricting advocates and witnesses on January 5—just one day after a code enforcement officer was cited for assaulting Ms. Martinez while she was filming a sweep.
“The city simply wants no witnesses, media or supporters when they abuse the homeless and violate their rights,” Martinez said. “They don’t want the public to see how they use violence to forcibly remove people from their only home and treat their treasured possessions like garbage.”
The lawsuit seeks to stop the ordinance from going into effect on March 31 and ultimately to get it voided altogether.