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Sleeping In Vehicles On City Streets? Not a Dream Location

City Council moves toward a law would prohibit snoozing in vehicles on public streets between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

In a couple of months, catching Z’s in your car while on a city street could cost you.

When it met on Wednesday night, the City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance that would prohibit sleeping in vehicles on Rancho Santa Margarita public roads between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

The ordinance, which passed 4-1, will be read a second time at the next council meeting on March 14, and, if ratified, would go into effect 30 days after the second reading.

“The members of our council have always been inclined to provide every tool to the police to make sure that we remain the safest city (of its size) in California,” said Mayor Tony Beall, who voted for the ordinance.  

“This is nothing unusual,” Beall said. “It's really just filling into our code a provision which would mirror what's already in place across Orange County.”

According to Orange County Sheriff Lt. Brian Schmutz, chief of police services for Rancho Santa Margarita, the ordinance gives deputies a tool to protect residents.

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Schmutz described an incident in September in which deputies found a man outside a local elementary school with a loaded semiautomatic handgun, police insignia, handcuffs and a handcuff key in his vehicle.

Officers investigated the incident because the man had been sleeping in his car about 45 minutes before school was supposed to open, and Schmutz said that underscores the need for the ordinance.

“The intent is to keep the neighborhoods as safe as possible,” Schmutz said. “And I don’t think anyone feels safe looking out their window at 2 o’clock in the morning seeing someone sleeping in a vehicle.”

Schmutz said that in 2011 there were more than 330 calls for service regarding suspicious vehicles and suspicious people in vehicles, and he estimated about 24 of the calls were for people sleeping in vehicles.

“I just want to know if any of them are councilmembers,” joked councilmember Carol Gamble, who voted in favor of the ordinance.

In addition to affecting neighborhood safety, Schmutz said the act of sleeping in a vehicle creates an unsanitary environment—no toilets or showers—and puts the sleepers, who are vulnerable while asleep, at risk for assault or other types of crime.

According to city attorney Greg Simonian, violating the ordinance would be classified a misdemeanor offense—punishable with a maximum of six months in jail and/ or a $1,000 fine.

However, Simonian said his office would have the discretion to downgrade the punishment to a code “infraction,” and that the punishment for the infraction would range between $35 and $50, and the fine would be no more than a maximum of $100 on first offense.

According to Schmutz a number of other cities have similar ordinances including Aliso Viejo, Costa Mesa, Irvine, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and Tustin.

Councilman Jesse Petrilla, who cast the sole dissenting vote on the item, said that ordinance would place a burden on already down-on-their-luck residents who may be sleeping in their vehicles because they lack housing.

He also said the ordinance would punish drivers who stop their vehicles when they are tired.

“I think we need to take all scenarios into consideration,” Petrilla said. “I would much rather have them take an exit and fall asleep safely, rather than have an accident.”

However, other council members as well as Simonian felt that there was considerable discretionary latitude for officers who come upon drivers who might be taking a catnap to avoid driving while drowsy.

Other business

  • The City Council recognized outgoing and incoming members of the Bell Tower Foundation, the fundraising organization that recently donated 18 iMacs to the City for use in the .
  • As part of a student recognition program, the city honored Daniel Flanagan and Erin Purnell of , and Jennifer Mrha and Melissa Petersen of for their scholastic and extracurricular achievements.
  • The next city council meeting takes place 7 p.m. March 14 in Council Chambers at .
April Josephson February 24, 2012 at 05:12 PM
Hey Chris— something we disagree on. I was beginning to think we agreed on everything. I agree with your assessment of the Loggins killing and appreciated your request for preemption in RSM. I believe you left during this item on Wednesday night. As the lengthy discussion progressed, it was made clear that law enforcement currently doesn't have the tools/authority to deal with someone parked in front of my home sleeping during the night. Speaking as a female and someone who has dealt with stalkers, I want them to be able to address this. Situations that Councilman Petrilla described, such as someone pulling off the toll road didn't hold water in my book. It was noted that major arterial streets don't allow parking, so no one can park there in the first place. If someone was tired and looking for a place to nap while traveling, I believe they will end up in a gas station or shopping center parking lot, as they are safer and the first places travelers would find to legally park. Neither is subject to this ordinance. I'd make a bee line to such a place if I needed sleep and didn't know the area, or if I was homeless and wanted to be safe. IMO, Petrilla's personal property argument was off-base. Why would he vote to take away personal property rights of someone who is a legal homeowner, and not violating any law, by banning them from parks that they pay for with their HOA dues, yet not want to protect the public from someone who is a stalker?
April Josephson February 24, 2012 at 05:46 PM
Mike, to clarify, it was the chief of police that asked for this tool to allow them to do their job. Unlike other recent ordinances, such as the registered sex offender park ban, it was not brought up by council. I agree with Martin and Councilman Holloway on this. I was satisfied that this was restrictive enough that it would protect residents and not unduly harm our privacy rights. The city attorney felt comfortable with the ability to decide whether a citation would be pursued as a misdemeanor or infraction. I especially liked Lt. Schmutz's (tongue-in-cheek) comment after Martin spoke, that he knows Martin and that he would be the one that he would use his discretion to enforce the ordinance against. I think secretly, Martin liked it too ;-)
Nancy Thompson February 26, 2012 at 04:02 PM
I have a couple of questions and then a suggestion :) 1) is or did putting this law into effect in RSM cost our city any $? using our lawyer, city employees to write it up, etc. (not the actual enforcement of the law) but the developement of the law? 2) the statement above about a man who was sitting in his car with guns, etc. where did it happen and when? If it happened here in RSM why didnt we hear about it and if it was posted where can I see it?? Suggestion: Neighborhood watch program! I lived in Santa Ana for 10 years and we had the BEST neighborhood watch on our street!!! If this ends up costing us as tax payers I would rather see a "Neighborhood Watch" program be started and put out to all the residents
Martin Henderson February 27, 2012 at 03:27 PM
To answer Nancy's question, the flashpoint of this law did take place at an RSM school (I believe it was Trabuco Mesa but I could be incorrect). It likely showed up in the Police Blotter as a "Suspicious circumstance" without the info about guns b/c I'm certain if that info was included in the report that's made public, it would have been a headline story. It's possible it was an oversight on our part, but I don't recall reading such a story elsewhere, either.
vince February 27, 2012 at 05:36 PM
"According to city attorney Greg Simonian, violating the ordinance would be classified a misdemeanor offense—punishable with a maximum of six months in jail and/ or a $1,000 fine." Good Luck everyone that is in favor of this, Don't you dare complain when you or someone you know is actually fined. I don't like giving anyone the authority to "FINE" my actions. Wake me up, check on my well being, tell me to go home, but a fine? and you guys thought the 35.00 HOA fines were bad around here...........

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