Sacramento County District Attorney Talks Homelessness, Threat to Jail City Officials

DA spoke to California Local one day after Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg called press conference to address threat

PUBLISHED AUG 11, 2023 12:09 P.M.
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“I have given the city an opportunity to move in the right direction,” District Attorney Thien Ho said.

“I have given the city an opportunity to move in the right direction,” District Attorney Thien Ho said.   Thien Ho for District Attorney   Flickr

One day after Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg gave a press conference at city hall, it was Thien Ho’s turn to speak.

Steinberg called his conference on Aug. 8 to denounce a letter one day prior from Ho, who is Sacramento County’s district attorney, threatening to arrest city officials for violations of California Penal Code 373a—in this case, not clearing encampments on city property where people could be creating public nuisances such as using or selling drugs.

In a 16-minute phone interview with California Local, Ho expounded on his rationale. He said he didn’t “relish the possibility of prosecution or civil litigation against a government entity to compel them to do their job,” but that responses from a survey his office had conducted with nearly 2,000 members of the public had been heartwrenching.

While the district attorney didn’t give a date when arrests of public officials would commence, Ho also didn’t completely abandon his threat.

“I have given the city an opportunity to move in the right direction,” Ho said. “I’m going to wait and see what the city does before I make a decision.”

The Backstory of Steinberg and Ho’s Public Dispute

Ho’s letter to the city and Steinberg’s press conference came less than a week after a federal judge, Troy Nunley of the Eastern District of California, issued a 14-day restraining order preventing the city from clearing encampments due to excessive heat.

Head shot of Thien Ho
‘You can’t play baseball if the
other team won’t come out
of the dugout onto the field.’

Anthony Prince, an attorney representing the Sacramento Homeless Union, which won the restraining order, said that he intends to file a complaint on Aug. 11 over Ho with California Attorney General Rob Bonta.

“For a district attorney to encourage another municipal entity to disregard a federal court order is unheard of and a breach of his obligation as a law enforcement officer and a prosecutor and elected official,” Prince said.

Already, local governments have had to comply in recent years with a 2018 federal court ruling that made it so that public camping couldn't be outlawed if insufficient shelter space was available. Sacramento City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood, who declined to be interviewed for this article wrote in a June 30 letter to Ho that "as prosecutors, we must acknowledge the limitations that Martin v. City of Boise and its progeny have imposed on the City and municipalities throughout the Ninth Circuit."

UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky denounced Ho's gambit in an opinion piece for the Sacramento Bee on Tuesday, writing that Alcala Wood had "publicly responded to Ho and pointed out that his letter misinterprets federal court decisions and that he wrongly asserts that California law imposes on government agencies 'an affirmative obligation to eliminate public nuisances on their property.'"

Ho wasn’t apologetic, though, in his interview with California Local. He said he’d sent a letter six weeks earlier when he’d documented 86 incidents at the courthouse around his office where his employees had been assaulted or threatened.

“That was six weeks ago and it’s only gotten worse,” Ho said. “I had an intern assaulted the other day. Just yesterday, there was an unhoused individual man that was [pleasuring himself] on the street corner in front of two of my employees.”

In a July 12 letter to Ho, Alcala Wood wrote that it was up to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors to declare Ho's office as a critical piece of infrastructure that couldn't have obstructions like encampments erected nearby.

What Happens From This Point

Alcala Wood wrote in a letter Monday to Ho that her office was “vigorously engaged in opposing” Nunley’s order and that the city was prepared to go to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals should Nunley issue an unfavorable ruling.

The city has cleared at least two encampments since Nunley’s ruling, with Prince saying there was possibly a third clearing as well.

Alcala Wood also stated in her letter that the Sacramento Police Department “is simply not issuing citations for unlawful camping, unlawful storage, sidewalk obstructions or any Sacramento city code sections related to homeless encampments.” Ho said he’d be asking questions if there was a concerted effort from city hall to prevent enforcement.

“People have asked, ‘Why are you not partnering with the city?’” Ho said. “And my response to that is you can’t play baseball if the other team won’t come out of the dugout onto the field.”

Prince didn’t want to lose sight of what he saw as most important, which was protecting Sacramento’s approximately 10,000 people experiencing homelessness from excessive summer heat. For Ho, Prince spared no sympathy.

“These games that Thien Ho’s playing, he’s the worst, I have to say,” Prince said. “He’s the most nakedly political about it.”

In his letter, Ho gave the city 30 days to meet a range of conditions. He said he was “absolutely” still open to future discussions with Steinberg.

“I’ve laid out pretty clearly what needs to be done,” Ho said. “And some people said, ‘Well, you’ve only given them 30 days.’ The fact of the matter is they’ve had seven years—seven years—and we’re still waiting. And in those seven years, we’ve had an increase in homelessness at 250 percent plus.”

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