Why this matters
The homelessness crisis has become a flashpoint for San Diegans, as some accuse city leaders of inhumane treatment while others say they aren’t doing enough to clear encampments from city sidewalks.
A San Diego Superior Court judge on Thursday dismissed misdemeanor charges of blocking a sidewalk against a 60-year-old woman experiencing homelessness.
Deputy city attorney Felicia Loera asked for the dismissal during a court hearing that lasted less than five minutes, saying it is “not provable beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“Prosecutors can only pursue charges when they believe they can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office said in a statement after the hearing. “Following completion of an extensive investigation and the interview of independent witnesses, we’ve concluded that charges in this case do not meet that requirement.”
Della Infante was arrested for encroachment last October outside her tent on Sports Arena Boulevard, where she’s known to all who live there as “Mom” or “Mama.” Police have said she refused shelter in the past and would not move her belongings when asked.
When asked if the defendant would like to be heard, Infante told the judge, “I just want them to stop harassing me and my son.”
The dismissal comes nearly two months after another judge rejected claims that Infante’s constitutional rights had been violated. Infante’s lead attorney, Coleen Cusack, said she was preparing to take the case to trial.
“This is not an appropriate case for criminal law,” Cusack said, adding that homelessness is a health care and social problem. “We shouldn’t be using criminal courts to fight societal ills.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, top city officials and police have cracked down on the growing number of tent encampments using a city law known as encroachment. The law was originally intended to prohibit trash cans from blocking a sidewalk, but nearly a decade ago police decided to use it as a tool to clear unhoused people out of public spaces.
An inewsource analysis last year found every criminal case that resulted from this crackdown ended in dismissal, often because the city attorney’s office asked for it.
And then Infante was charged.
Cusack, who along with co-counsel Scott Dreher represented Infante for free, asked a judge to dismiss the case in February. She argued the city’s encroachment law is unjust at its core and the way police enforce it violates constitutional rights. The city fought back, contending that no one has a right to commandeer public space for their own use.
That request spawned an extremely rare pretrial motion hearing that spanned six days, with meandering and sometimes combative arguments that touched on the nation’s founding, capitalism, the rights of property owners and the causes of homelessness. Eleven people testified, ranging from police officers to advocates to people experiencing homelessness.
Judge Yvonne Campos sided with the city and ruled in June that the case should move forward, saying that Infante “has chosen to force this showdown by claiming that she should not have to move her property when the city elects to conduct abatement of public places.”
In a twist of fate, Infante found herself at the center of a debate playing out in San Diego about how to ethically and lawfully deal with people who live on the street with all of their belongings. This case, in some ways, is responsible for the city’s latest camping ban, which took effect at the end of last month.
After charges were dismissed Thursday, Infante was skeptical about what it would mean for her moving forward as she continues to call a stretch of sidewalk on Sports Arena Boulevard home.
“I just want to see if they pick me up or not,” she said, referring to San Diego police. “If they do, then we’re going to have to start this all over again.”
Cusack, who announced last month her candidacy for the San Diego City Council, has spent her free time the past 10 years defending unhoused people who she says have been criminalized for surviving in public view. She said the dismissal frees up her time to focus on fighting the city’s camping ban.
Editor’s note: Aug. 10, 2023
This story has been updated to clarify that Della Infante faced more than one charge of encroachment.
Type of Content
News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.