The Santa Cruz County Superior Court recently ruled homeless rights activist Becky Johnson “unreasonably disturbing” and defended the language of the Santa Cruz noise ordinance against accusations of unconstitutionality.
The case involved tenant Sean Reilly, who complained to the police about noise from Johnson’s homeless activism group under his window on Pacific Avenue around 11 a.m. on a day in January last year. Reilly works the night shift at his job and sleeps during the day.
Local attorney Ed Frey represented Johnson in her appeal hearing on Jan. 6. A longtime friend of Johnson, Frey challenged the noise ordinance as being “too vague” as applied to her case.
The noise ordinance has been a highly contested issue among many groups in the Santa Cruz community, most notably the homeless population and the student population. The panel’s decision has far-reaching consequences in the social and political realms.
Controversy arose over a misplaced semicolon in the prosecution’s presentation. Frey argued that it changed the meaning of the ordinance by making it possible to receive a citation when only violating one part.
“If your noise [is] too harsh, it’s too prolonged, it’s at a high volume, it’s physically annoying … if all of those elements are together,” Johnson said, “then there’s reasonable cause to issue a citation. Ed was pointing out that if you take all of these things and put them together, that would be a reasonable ordinance.”
However, the bench saw the issue differently. Judge Ariadne Symons said the singing was too close to residential units to be considered reasonable.
“Were it a completely commercial street with no residences, I think this would be a different analysis,” Symons said.
Johnson said a police officer walked by her group standing outside of Bookshop Santa Cruz without approaching them. She said this showed that the police officer thought the singing was reasonable.
However, upon receiving a complaint from Reilly, who lives above Bookshop Santa Cruz, citations were issued to four individuals. Among the four was Johnson, who had been handing out pamphlets regarding homeless issues and singing songs with a small group on Pacific Avenue.
Frey saw the ruling as socially and politically motivated on the judges’ part.
“If they rule in favor of the likes of Becky Johnson or a homeless person, they are not likely to be welcome in their social circles,” Frey said. “What other explanation could there be? Certainly no valid constitutional one.”
Frey said that residents that live over Pacific Avenue and sleep during the day are not of “ordinary sensitivity,” but Judge Burdick, another judge on the panel, disagreed.
“We have rejected that argument,” Burdick said. “Someone who works the graveyard shift and sleeps during the day is a common occurrence.”
Local activist and radio host Robert Norse sees the ruling as part of a pattern that has arisen in Santa Cruz.
“Musicians are being driven away at the slightest pretext,” Norse said.”[The city is] using these local ordinances to go after them.”
Norse participated in the tabling for homeless rights the day Johnson was cited. Both Norse and Johnson said they noted inconsistencies between their experiences on Pacific Avenue and how the court weighed the evidence. Johnson claims the court got some basic facts wrong.
“It was really hard for us to hear that singing for three hours continuously in one spot would be unreasonable,” Johnson said. “I sang less than half an hour and we had 7 witnesses.”
Norse said the content of the songs and literature may have been the reason for the citation.
“The judge gave the appearance of fairness, but did not let some of the basic facts of the case come out,” he said. “Our case, of course, is the case of people in front of Mayor Coonerty’s bookstore, criticizing Mayor Coonerty’s anti-homeless laws.”
As the judges left the courthouse, Norse broke into song. He chose one of the songs Johnson had been cited for singing. Lyrics penned by Norse, the song is to the tune of Petula Clark’s classic “Downtown.”
“Don’t let them steal your rights, Downtown!” Norse sang. “Tickets are waiting for you.”