Manhattan Beach is Venice if it went to college, an idyllic Los Angeles suburb that anyone can enjoy if they're willing to brave the traffic. Well, maybe not anyone. The city has made it illegal to eat in your car, the idea presumably being to exclude undesirable hungry people from savoring the welcoming ocean breeze.

Live Oak Park, an eerily pristine, family-friendly public enclave just blocks from the Pacific Ocean, sports warning signs that read: “NO SLEEPING NO EATING, IN VEHICLES ON STREETS, PARKS, PARKING LOTS OR OTHER PUBLIC PROPERTY 10PM TO 6AM M.B.M.C. 3-1.1.”

Other exclusionist popped-collar communities around California have laws targeting the homeless, but this may be the only one to bar the essential human act of consuming nutrients. The code referenced, 3-11.1, is not even on record at Manhattan Beach City Hall, which would make enforcement problematic.

It apparently was repealed years ago, although the signs appear to be freshly minted.

The statute Manhattan Beach officials may have been looking for when they erected the signs is 14.36.160. The statute is known as the No Overnight Camping Ordinance. Indeed, being homeless is a form of camping. Conversely, camping is a means of being temporarily homeless for those who aren't.

That statute is on the books, and it reads, “It shall be unlawful for any person to use or occupy, permit the use or occupancy of any vehicle for human habitation, including but not limited to sleeping or eating, on any street, alley, park, beach, public parking lot or parking structure, or any public property within the City of Manhattan Beach between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.”

Credit: illustration by Aron Farmer

Credit: illustration by Aron Farmer

Could it be constitutional to ban people from eating in parked cars in public at night? Is enforcement limited to hot meals or could someone swing a granola bar while stopped at a red light? Pounding burritos in the parking lot at Taco Bell while highly baked?

What about breastfeeding? Could the baby be cited? Wouldn't it be better to pull over and eat rather than, in the spirit of compliance, doing 45 on the PCH with Mongolian barbecue on your lap?

If a resident has a blowout with his or her spouse and hits McDonald's, is this person at risk of being cited outside their $5.8 million home?

According to Heather Maria Johnson, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, of course not. “If there is an ordinance on the books that does prohibit eating in your private vehicle, it criminalizes what is otherwise innocent conduct, but it is also something that could be subject to arbitrary enforcement, or selective enforcement.”

Stephanie Martin, a spokeswoman at the Manhattan Beach Police Department, denies the law is a thinly veiled method for displacing people of whom the 84.5 percent white town doesn't approve, yet conversely confirms it's not meant to apply to locals (who, by the way, enjoy a median household income of $140,000 a year, while Beverly Hills trails at $87,000.)

“Doesn't matter if you're in an Aston Martin or a Ford Pinto, we don't police that way,” Martin says. “We get a call that someone says it's 2 o'clock in the morning, somebody's parked on Valley Drive in violation of the sign, then we're going to go respond and investigate, and if a citation is warranted then it's warranted. It's not there designed for the locals. I don't think any of the locals sit there and park their cars there at 10 o'clock at night and sleep or eat.”

Enforcement would appear to be difficult, unless there are sandwich-sniffing K-9s roaming the city. Must one be caught in the act, or is toting a doggy bag from Rock'n Fish probable cause? Barbara Rosenberger, records clerk for the city, says only three overnight-camping citations have been issued since 2004.

But that doesn't include the number of calls police get in reference to the ordinance, which number in the “hundreds, thousands per year,” Rosenberger says. The citations issued is beside the point so long as the law is leverage. Leave or be cited. 

Determining the act of “sleeping” raises similar issues. How could it be proven one was not, for example, meditating? Martin dismisses such conjecture, saying, “I guess that would be pretty difficult to do. But it comes down to parking.”

Potential violators often are sussed out through the power of suggestion, according to the ACLU's Johnson. “Often the police will ask somebody if they were sleeping, or they'll approach them in the morning and ask if they slept there the previous night. And people will often say yes. Then the police will have evidence.” Because of court challenges to many municipal laws banning sleeping in public, cities have rewritten their ordinances, “and that [technique] is sufficient for them to say that the person violated the 'anti-camping ordinance.' And I will say I find that completely problematic.”

Johnson is referencing California Penal Code 647(e), which makes it a misdemeanor to “lodge in any building, structure, vehicle or place, whether public or private,” without the permission of whoever is in charge. It was struck down by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for being “unconstitutionally vague.” 

Whether its parking signs will ever be found unconstitutional, or if people in Manhattan Beach will remain under the threat of eating while parked in cars deemed not quite shiny enough, remains to be seen. 

Boulder, Colorado, is a city known for its progressive laws on an array of topics, including armpit hair. Its officials return calls. Boulder Police Department's Sgt. Fred Gerhardt is as perplexed by the Manhattan Beach law as your average shady skateboarder. 

“It doesn't make any sense,” he says. “You can't just enforce the law against transients, you have to enforce the law against everybody. It affects all, not just a certain group that they're trying to get rid of. All you end up doing is making more laws and more laws.” 

Terry Stevens, a 42-year resident of Manhattan Beach, loves his community yet feels the city council is often meddlesome. “Manhattan Beach is kind of anal. They outlawed VRBO [vacation rentals by owner] — shouldn't they have more important things to worry about? … Did you know, if I wanted to smoke a cigarette in my car, the car would have to be moving? It's illegal if it's parked.” 

A bemused Stevens sums up the city's take on homelessness as “an issue that nobody wants to talk about.” 

The intention of its law is perhaps best articulated by those who approved it. But none of the five members of the Manhattan Beach City Council, including Mayor Mark Burton, responded to multiple requests for comment.

Burton, however, has posted an open letter on the city website, which sheds some light on the sort of people he wants to feel comfortable in Manhattan Beach. It's titled “Welcome to Manhattan Beach” and appears to address current or potential residents. 

“Manhattan Beach, with its rich past, exciting present and promising future, is primarily a residential community. The City boasts a private tennis club and a nine-hole golf course. The community provides a multitude of activities for its residents, including surfing and beach volleyball, along with a variety of sports activities in its seven parks. Making you feel at home is one of the things Manhattan Beach does best. I look forward to seeing you around town.”

Clearly, that depends.

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