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Drivers threatened with $250 fine for sleeping in car

If you’re driving through Virginia, you don’t dare think about catching a few winks in your car if you get tired.

That’s the warning from the civil rights experts at the Rutherford Institute, who say a new Roanoke County ordinance allows police to do warrantless searches and seizures on vehicles and their drivers.

If they’re taking a nap.

The Roanoke County Code 13-14 “makes it illegal for people to sleep in their cars and subjects them to warrantless seizures and searches by police and a fine of $250,” Rutherford President John Whitehead explains.

He is asking officials, in a letter, to repeal the new law.

Whitehead calls the plan a “thinly veiled attempt to crack down on the area’s homeless population that is “constitutionally vague” and “overly broad.”

“Not only does this ban on sleeping in cars subject the area homeless population to heightened legal peril, but by its plain terms, this law also gives police broad enforcement powers that can be abused to violate the rights and privacy of all citizens,” he writes.

“By criminalizing common activity that is wholly innocent, this ordinance gives police an additional basis for conducting arbitrary and pretextual seizures and searches of citizens and their vehicles. It threatens not only the homeless, but also law-abiding citizens guilty of nothing more than fatigue while driving,” he says.

Whitehead argues the problem isn’t widespread.

County officials said they were concerned that the use of automobiles for sleeping “can have a negative effect on neighborhood aesthetics.”

In its letter to the county, Rutherford explains that courts nationwide have found similar ordinances to be invalid, arguing they are unduly vague and an arbitrary exercise of government power.

“For example, an Alabama appeals court struck down an ordinance forbidding sleeping in a car on a public street because it left to police the unfettered discretion of whether the conduct of the person cited was lawful or unlawful,” Rutherford says. “Similarly, a Florida appeals court found an ordinance making it unlawful for a person to ‘lodge or sleep in or about, any automobile or truck’ to be overbroad by criminalizing conduct that does not impinge upon the rights of others.”

Whitehead warns the county it has opened itself “to legal jeopardy.”

“Not only do the board’s actions subject the area homeless population to heightened legal peril … but by its plain terms, this new law can also be applied to any person law enforcement officials believe is sleeping in a vehicle. Interpreted broadly, this would apply to even the weary traveler who seeking a few minutes of rest in order to continue on their journey safely.”

The letter says, “It would be in the best interests of the residents and taxpayers of Roanoke County and other impacted parties for the board to repeal [the law].”

The county warned against sleeping in cars during winter months because of the safety risks.

But Rutherford contends it is “wholly unclear how it is safer for a person who is homeless and unable to afford a hotel or other lodging to sleep outdoors during the winter months.”

“Police who encounter a citizen that is merely napping will now have cause to seize that person and cite him for violating the ordinance. This is turn will allow the officer to demand the person exist the car, submit to a full search of his person and to a full search of the car and any containers in the passenger compartment.

“It threatens not only the homeless, but also law-abiding citizens guilty of nothing more than fatigue while driving.”