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 .
LeAna Bui February 23, 2012 at 03:52 PM
I see this ordinance as nothing more than an attempt to criminalize undesirable behavior. The council is going to point to one incident with a person who had a gun (isn't carrying a concealed weapon already illegal?) and point to the fact that less than 10% of the calls related to this last year were for people sleeping in their cars. They are creating an ordinance for a non existent problem. An ordinance is not needed for a cop to knock on a car window and ask a sleeping person if they are okay and to suggest that they move along. This is especially sad when one remembers that we recently lost a teenager due to the driver falling asleep at the wheel late at night. And what about the person who has had too much to drink?? I would really rather this person take a nap in their car when the bar closes rather than have he/she get behind the wheel and attempt to drive home.
Jim Jacs February 23, 2012 at 04:11 PM
Non issue. We are adding laws that are unnecessary. It makes our officials look tough on crime. It only hurts people maybe down on there luck. What we should be passing is a law on dirty politicians. RSM politicians that vote on $$$ benefiting themselves. Check out: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/california-politics/2012/02/orange-county-officials-ethics-warning-letters.html
Lawrence (Larry) McCook February 23, 2012 at 04:58 PM
Please read my comments at the Patch article "Chamber Event Was A Huge Success"
vince February 23, 2012 at 05:21 PM
More, statutes, ordinances, and/or bigger government is never a good thing, at any level. We, The American public, seem to already be walking through spider webs on a daily basis. I know that there are people down on their luck, sleeping in their trucks or campers, and guess what? I don't feel threatened by them.The last thing they need is insult to injury. Having lived here in RSM for 24 years, I myself have had to pull over driving home late from work and rest for 30 minutes, before continuing to the safety of my home. In fact, after having lost a friend and fellow coach at RSM Little League a few years ago to a single vehicle crash on the 241, ( due to sleep deprivation driving home late from work.) I have never hesitated to pull over and rest. The fine officers of RSM already have the authority to "check" on a person who is sleeping, sick and/or possibly injured in a parked vehicle. The truth is, I would rather be awakened at two in the morning with police radios squelching into the night air and the lights of the back up unit firing up the sky like the fourth of July, for a routine check than the same scenario where someone has been injured due to a sleepy or intoxicated driver. I really do hope they consider all aspects of this decision, before they make it for all of us.
MagicCharm February 23, 2012 at 08:06 PM
So not necessary. The police already have full control over anyone they think is a suspicious person. I completely agree with Jesse Petrilla! If someone is asleep in their vehicle, there must be a reason, could be for safety reasons, but I'm sure if someone has the choice to sleep in a warm home or their car, the choice would be an easy one. If you make this a crime and someone has no where to go, perhaps they will have to do something illegal to get enough money to sleep in a hotel somewhere. In this city and this economy, not everyone who is sleeping in their car is a criminal. Perhaps we could designate a parking lot area (like Walmart does) for overnighters to park. Walmart does not seem to have an overabundance of overnight vehicles or problems from allowing this kindness. I'm pretty sure we have bigger crimes to fight than someone sleeping in their personal vehicle.
J.P. February 23, 2012 at 08:45 PM
Kudos to the RSM City Council members for working with the police department to keep our streets and neighborhoods safe!
Chris McLaughlin February 24, 2012 at 04:26 AM
Have to agree with Jesse on this one. This ordinance seems unnecessary, and they even admit it, that they don't intend to throw the book at people, and that we should trust the Sheriff's and City Attorney's discretion on it. My trust in the Sheriff's and City Attorney's discretion is at an all-time low after the Sgt. Loggins killing and our City Council's complete non-response to it. Their stated reason for this law doesn't hold water, about finding a guy asleep near a school, who had a bunch of dangerous stuff in his trunk. That guy definitely needed to be arrested, but they managed to handle that without this law being in effect, and Jesse had them clarify that just because someone was asleep didn't give them probable cause to search their vehicle, so a similar situation wouldn't be helped by this new crime law taking effect. Just because most other cities in OC have a similar law doesn't make it necessary in our town. The Police say that they don't have the authority now to wake someone up in their car if they're not doing anything else wrong/illegal, but everyone who's commented here seems to think they already have that authority. What's the truth?? I would think that under existing public nuisance/suspicious person ordinances, especially if someone called it in, they would be covered to wake them up and evaluate the situation. If nothing else, they could say they wanted to make sure they weren't dead/unconscious.
Marilyn P. February 24, 2012 at 05:31 AM
While I agree that this law doesn't seem to be necessary, I think calling our city representatives "dirty politicians" a pretty low blow.
Mike Proctor February 24, 2012 at 07:32 AM
I'm just going to say, "really"? and end with, "Unnecessary, and IMO an invasion of privacy".
Jim Jacs February 24, 2012 at 03:44 PM
I am just hoping for honest people that earn the publics trust. I don't think this will happen again as everybody is now watching.
Martin Henderson (Editor) February 24, 2012 at 04:04 PM
The intent of the law is to give law enforcement the tools to investigate something suspicious, albeit seemingly benign. Lt. Schmutz explained there is a "spirit of the law" at play here, and that someone who is trying to catnap before driving home isn't likely to be penalized, simply a tap on the window to see if everything is OK. I spoke to council during the public comments and said that that they shouldn't criminalize cautious behavior, citing drowsy driving (using my own experience, and the example of the late Taylor Sams) as impaired driving. Every councilman was sympathetic to that point of view. As a person who works in RSM, and someone who because of my work in the past has slept in my car dozens of times before driving home late at night, I was satisfied with the arguments in favor of the ordinance, that people who are well-intentioned and not under the influence aren't going to be harmed by this law. That was my take from the discussion. Basically, there's a lot of discretionary action in play, by the cops and by the city attorney, and both Schmutz and Greg Simonian understood the concept of people who were trying to be safe.
LeAna Bui February 24, 2012 at 04:46 PM
Martin: I spoke with Councilman Holloway yesterday and he said almost exaclty the same thing. I still cannot get around the fact that police already have the ability to walk up to any car at any time and engage the occupants in conversation. Even if the use of this law is as limited as the Council portrays it, I still believe it is a useless and unnecessary law that simply criminalizes a behavior most of us find undesirable.
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 (Editor) 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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