Court to Los Angeles: ‘Stop Destroying Homeless Belongings’

Nine homeless individuals just whipped the City of Los Angeles in court. It’s a narrow ruling, and it was not unanimous, but it helps protect homeless and poor people’s property, including “medications, legal documents, family photographs, and bicycles that are left momentarily unattended in violation of a municipal ordinance.”

by Carol Denney

Nine homeless individuals represented by the law office of Carol A. Sobel of Santa Monica just whipped the City of Los Angeles in court.

It’s a narrow ruling, and it’s not a unanimous ruling, but it helps protect homeless and poor people’s property, including “medications, legal documents, family photographs, and bicycles that are left momentarily unattended in violation of a municipal ordinance.”

The City of Berkeley did this recently to people in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. It took only 20 minutes for the police to decide that the personal property of someone who was at a nearby appointment was abandoned and to haul it away.

The severity of the loss can be incalculable for someone whose eviction whittles down their belongings to the smallest, most precious things they have: the tools they use to find work, the papers they need to establish eligibility or the photographs that connect them to family.

Some, but not all, of the belongings were recovered and returned to their owners, but the practice of sweeping up unattended personal belongings as though they were trash has a familiar ring in Berkeley.

In the late 1980s, then-mayor (and now state senator) Loni Hancock sent trash compactors up to People’s Park for sweeps of homeless people’s belongings for instant destruction.

The Department of Justice’s recent statement of interest saying laws against involuntary human behavior are cruel and unusual punishment may have little legal weight yet in a courtroom, but this decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is a clear rebuke to the City of Los Angeles for trashing the unattended possessions of poor and homeless people and has some modest, if narrow, legal heft.

Los Angeles is enjoined, or prohibited, from “confiscating and summarily destroying unabandoned property in Skid Row” and the court ruling cites the Fourth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution seems clear on this matter:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment also seems clear:

“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

This is one of the most litigated parts of the Constitution, but the district court states, “We conclude that the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments protect homeless persons from government seizure and summary destruction of their unabandoned, but momentarily unattended, personal property.”

City officials who insist that property confiscation is simply part of their obligation to maintain public health and safety can, according to the court, fulfill that mission without declaring, as Los Angeles attempted to declare, “that the unattended property of homeless persons is uniquely beyond the reach of the Constitution, so that the government may seize and destroy with impunity the worldly possessions of a vulnerable group in our society.”

The possessions of homeless people are routinely confiscated by the police and discarded like trash. A Los Angeles ruling gives new hope to the homeless community. Art by Jonathan Burstein

Homeless people’s belongings are often seized by police and discarded like trash. A Los Angeles ruling gives new hope to the homeless community. Art by Jonathan Burstein

 

Heaven knows that cities like Berkeley, which is apparently still bent on having a law criminalizing having more than two square feet of property in one’s possession at any given time for more than an hour, will continue to try to find creative ways to legally skirt the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. The odd myopia that even self-proclaimed progressive cities have regarding their own unconstitutional laws seems as yet to have no end and no cure.

Most of us with an eye on the streets know that when police officers (or the “ambassadors”) think nobody is watching, constitutional protections are no match for the well-funded, politically supported, and heavily marketed power of the police, with layers of overlapping jurisdictions capable of destroying the lives of vulnerable people as a matter of policy if so instructed by city councils either overtly or through euphemism and implication.

Many of the destructive sweeps we see in the Bay Area and nationally are considered a routine matter of sanitation by cities which have, in many cases, stopped considering homeless people’s rights as even a modest factor in their equation.

Without the drought, for instance, homeless people in many cities would still find themselves and all their belongings thoroughly power-hosed each morning, a practice wistfully missed by the Block by Block patrols and property owners who defended it as keeping the streets clean.

But at least a little Constitutional light peeps in the window now and then, illuminating the need for practical, rather than criminal, approaches to a housing crisis that affects us all.

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