Masthead of Street Sheet May 1996
Street Sheet, May 1996
We won this one -- no, that would be these 39,000 cases!
The next time a cop comes up to you and wants to run your name for warrants, he can huff and puff and blow his own steam as much as he likes. But when he calls up your name on that Central Warrant Bureau (CWB) computer, there won't be any Matrix warrants to use as an excuse to haul your ass to jail.
On April 16, the Municipal Court granted the motion brought by criminal defense attorney Bobbie Stein to dismiss all Matrix tickets issued before February 22, 1996. District Attorney Terence Hallinan had helped organize the motion, and came to court himself to NOT oppose it.
As a result, all of the tickets for sleeping, camping, obstructing the sidewalk, sleeping in cars, failure to obey a sign (used for being in the park after hours), consuming alcohol in public ("open containers"), and trespass were dismissed. There were almost 39,000 cases, 37,000 of which had already gone to warrant.
We have always known that Matrix is a waste of police resources, and the cops never thought people could really pay the tickets. Seventy-six dollars is a chunk of change, and if you had it you sure as shit would not be sleeping in the park. The tickets were meant to harass, and allowed the cops to pick you up once the citations went to warrant. But the courts found the tickets a bureaucratic nightmare, and the sheriffs didn't much like paying the bills to put you up for this stupid BS either. At the end of January, Mayor Brown set up meetings between the COH, his office, and the police department, supposedly to develop a policy to end Matrix. These conversations went nowhere; the COH repeatedly requested an amnesty for existing Matrix warrants, and the City didn't promise anything.
On February 22, Mayor Brown wrote to Chief Lau stating that he was "supportive of an amnesty policy for homeless people who have warrants due to their inability to pay Matrix fines (i.e., camping, lodging, sleeping in parks or public, possession of shopping carts, etc.). He went on to say, "it is more important that police officers spend their time apprehending real criminals instead of arresting homeless people for warrants issued as a consequence of Matrix." The police then agreed to work with us to make the amnesty happen.
Shortly after this meeting, police department representatives and the mayor retreated from their previous level of cooperation, limiting their support for the amnesty to sleeping and camping tickets. But it was the District Attorney and the courts who had the juice to make the decision to purge the tickets, and the Coalition continued to work with them.
D.A. Hallinan looked at the proposed code sections and said that he would dismiss any tickets for open containers where there was no evidence -- and sure enough, not one of the 27,000 tickets given had any evidence to back it up. He then agreed to include the trespass and the disobeying park sign citations because we demonstrated that they were given almost exclusively to homeless people as a part of Matrix. The COH also argued that the tickets for urination in public should be dismissed, since there are insufficient public toilets and people are forced to piss in public. But Hallinan would not go there.
After much delay from all around, Judge Herbert Donaldson agreed to hear the case, and the Matrix tickets were officially dropped.
It's ironic. Even as you read this article and breathe a sigh of relief for the tickets that are wiped out, a cop steps up tell you to move on. (See StreetTalk article for a recent declaration showing continued Matrix enforcement.) We have been fighting for years to stop the Matrix program. It looks like we are going to have to continue that fight until the city comes up with some other way to address poverty and those of us who are forced to live in public spaces.
Come to a gathering of force to show Mayor Brown that we want an end police harassment of poor people! This event is scheduled for Wednesday, May 8, at noon, in front of City Hall, 401 Van Ness. For information call the Coalition, 346-9693.