San Francisco Drug Injunctions Are Unconstitutional
People v. Padilla-Martel (Cal. Ct. App., Apr. 29, 2022, No. A162872) 2022 WL 1284091, at *1
Summary: In these civil actions, the People, by the San Francisco City Attorney (City) allege defendants Christian Noel Padilla-Martel, Victor Zelaya, Jarold Sanchez, and Guadaloupe Aguilar-Benegas are street-level drug dealers whose drug-dealing activities in the Tenderloin neighborhood create a public nuisance (Civ. Code, §§ 3479, 3480) and violate the unfair competition law (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200 et seq.) (UCL).
Before trial, the City moved for preliminary injunctions against defendants that would prohibit them from entering a 50-block zone in the Tenderloin. The area is “facing a drug-related health crisis,” and the trial court found the City established the neighborhood is “rife with illegal drug-dealing.” The City has authority to seek injunctive relief to address public nuisances and UCL violations; defendants and the trial court that the City could enjoin individuals from engaging in illegal drug selling in the Tenderloin.
The trial court denied the City’s motions for preliminary injunctions on two independent grounds, based on the scope of the proposed injunctions. First, the trial court determined that a stay-away order—as opposed to an injunction prohibiting certain conduct—is not an authorized remedy under either the public nuisance law or the UCL.
Second, the trial court concluded the specific injunctive relief the City requested would be constitutionally impermissible under the facts of these cases. The court determined that excluding defendants from such a large area in the center of San Francisco implicates the constitutional right to intrastate travel and the City failed to meet its evidentiary burden of convincing the court that its proposed remedy was sufficiently tailored to minimally infringe upon the protected interests at stake.
The City appealed, challenging both grounds for denying its motions. The Court ofppeal did not hold that a stay-away order could never be a potential remedy for a public nuisance or unfair business practice. The Court held that City has failed to show error in the trial court’s finding that the proposed stay-away orders are insufficiently tailored to pass constitutional muster.
Standard of Review for Preliminary Injunction
Whether a preliminary injunction should be granted involves two interrelated factors: (1) the likelihood that the plaintiff will prevail on the merits, and (2) the relative balance of harms that is likely to result from the granting or denial of interim injunctive relief.” (White v. Davis (2003) 30 Cal.4th 528, 554, 133 Cal.Rptr.2d 648, 68 P.3d 74.)
On appeal, we accept the trial court’s factual findings if they are supported by substantial evidence. We review its decision whether to issue a preliminary injunction for abuse of discretion. We review questions of law de novo. (People ex rel. Feuer v. FXS Management, Inc. (2016) 2 Cal.App.5th 1154, 1159, 206 Cal.Rptr.3d 819.)
Statutory Authority and Scope of Injunctive Relief for Public Nuisance and Unfair Competition
A “nuisance” is defined by statute to include “[a]nything which is injurious to health, including, but not limited to, the illegal sale of controlled substances.” (Civ. Code, § 3479.) A “public nuisance is one which affects at the same time an entire community or neighborhood, or any considerable number of persons, although the extent of the annoyance or damage inflicted upon individuals may be unequal.” (Id., § 3480.) Civil Code section 3491 provides that the “remedies against a public nuisance” include “[a]batement.” “ ‘ “An abatement of a nuisance is accomplished in a court of equity by means of an injunction proper and suitable to the facts of each case.” ’ ” (People ex rel. Busch v. Projection Room Theater (1976) 17 Cal.3d 42, 57, 130 Cal.Rptr. 328, 550 P.2d 600 (Projection Room Theater), italics omitted.)
“[U]nfair competition” includes “any unlawful … business act or practice.” (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200.) The UCL covers “ ‘anything that can properly be called a business practice and that at the same time is forbidden by law’ ” (Barquis v. Merchants Collection Assn. (1972) 7 Cal.3d 94, 113, 101 Cal.Rptr. 745, 496 P.2d 817) and provides, “[a]ny person who engages … in unfair competition may be enjoined in any court of competent jurisdiction” (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17203). Thus, an injunction to abate unlawful activity is an appropriate remedy under both the public nuisance law and the UCL.
The scope of injunctive relief available to address a public nuisance or unlawful business practice is limited, however. “It is a familiar doctrine of equity that the scope of [an] injunction will be limited to the wrongful act sought to be prevented.” (Magill Bros. v. Building Service etc. Union (1942) 20 Cal.2d 506, 512, 127 P.2d 542.)
When a nuisance or unlawful business practice occurs in the operation of a legitimate business, any injunction to address the problem must be narrowly drawn to eliminate the unlawful activity and should not restrict on lawful business activity unless absolutely necessary. Aninjunction against the individual must be limited to addressing the unlawful activity. In reviewing gang injunctions, the Court of Appeal observed, “While it may be lawful to restrict such activity, it is also extraordinary. The government, in any guise, should not undertake such restrictions without good reason and without firmly establishing the facts making such restrictions necessary.”
Any injunctive relief must be tailored to addressing the public nuisance or unlawful business practice the trial court finds defendants have engaged in and should not restrict defendants’ lawful activities unless the City firmly establishes facts showing that the proposed restrictions are necessary to prevent the unlawful conduct at issue.
Availability of Stay-Away Orders Under the Statutes
The particular injunctive relief the City requested is unprecedented under California law. The parties have not cited, and we have not found, any case in California upholding the use of a neighborhood-wide exclusion zone as injunctive relief to abate a public nuisance or address an unfair business practice. But that does not mean that UCL statutes categorically prohibit stay-away orders.
Any injunctive relief must comply with our state and federal constitutions. (See Projection Room Theater, supra, 17 Cal.3d at p. 55, 130 Cal.Rptr. 328, 550 P.2d 600 [“the California public nuisance statutes must be enforced in such a way as to operate in a constitutional fashion”].) Here, the trial court determined that, even if the remedy were authorized by the public nuisance or UCL statutes, the City’s proposed injunctive relief would violate defendants’ constitutional right to intrastate travel.
Defendants contend that the correct level of scrutiny is strict scrutiny (i.e., “narrowly tailored to promote a compelling governmental interest”) because the proposed injunctions impinge on defendants’ fundamental right to travel. (Nunez by Nunez v. City of San Diego (9th Cir. 1997) 114 F.3d 935, 944, 946 [applying strict scrutiny review to a curfew ordinance challenged on the ground it infringed on “fundamental rights” of “the right of free movement and the right to travel”]
Each defendant was arrested in a small area within the proposed abatement area, and the trial court reasonably could have determined that the exclusion zone was unnecessarily large or its borders unnecessarily kept these defendants from accessing public transit and health and social services. There was evidence that many community resources and government agencies are located in the Tenderloin, and the trial court was not required to discredit defendants’ statements that they were interested in taking advantage of the employment, treatment, housing, and health services available in the 50-square-block neighborhood.
In affirming the trial court, the Court or Appeal stated it does not minimize the serious and pervasive harm caused by the flood of street-level drug sales in the Tenderloin. We are mindful of, and sympathetic to, the challenges faced by the City in addressing the issues of illegal drug sales, drug use, and the drug-related health crisis and its effects on the people who live and work in the neighborhood. That said, we hold—and it is all we hold—that the City has not shown the trial court erred in denying the City’s requested interim relief against these four defendants.