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L.A. Violated Constitutional Rights of Homeless, Court Finds

City cannot randomly remove homeless persons' property from the street.

The City of Los Angeles cannot randomly remove homeless residents’ street property left unattended, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

In a 2-1 ruling, the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that found L.A. and other cities cannot violate the Fourth Amendment right of homeless people unless a clear threat to public health or safety is present, or if the property is illegal or at the scene of a crime.

The case stems from a dispute between Skid Row residents and the city over property seizures in February and March of 2011. In protest, homeless residents obtained an injunction against the city that prevented it from further sweeps. They claimed several people’s valuable possessions—including birth certificates, medications and family memorabilia—were destroyed. Skid Row residents also argued that they had not abandoned their property, but left it temporarily to either shower or eat.

Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw agreed. 

“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,” she wrote.

Frank Mateljan, spokesman for the City Attorney's Office, said his office is reviewing its options and may appeal the decision.

In the meantime, he said, the city would “continue to take steps to protect public health by removing dangerous, contaminated items” from public walkways along Skid Row in conjunction with the Department of Public Works-related Operation Healthy Streets effort.

In court documents, the city does not deny destroying the property and claims it's authorized to conduct such sweeps under an L.A. municipal ordinance which states that “no person shall leave or permit to remain any merchandise, baggage or any article of personal property upon any parkway or sidewalk.”

“The pivotal question under both Amendments is not whether Plaintiffs had a property interest in the items seized—they may very well have had such an interest,” wrote dissenting Judge Consuelo Callahan. “But whether that interest is one that society would recognize as reasonably worthy of protection where the personal property is left unattended on public sidewalks."

City News Service contributed to this report.

swankgirlvenice September 06, 2012 at 02:58 PM
Venice residents should start putting out lawn furniture on the sidewalks in front of their houses. For sure I will have a property interest in the table and chairs I'll buy from Target this weekend to set up a camp in front of my house. And for sure I won't be abandoning the furniture every day when I leave to WORK a JOB. This court decision makes no sense but it should now give license to homeowners to extend their yards to the curb.
steve September 06, 2012 at 03:42 PM
Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani moved the homeless out of Manhattan, he said that the homeless had no right to sleep on the streets, ''Streets do not exist in civilized societies for the purpose of people sleeping there,'' have you been to Manhattan lately, no homeless. Does anyone or has anyone screamed, shouted and attacked him on this, NO, NO, NO. Councilmembers, Mayor Tony (Empty Suit) Villar, grow some and Let's Move Them On!
Sean September 06, 2012 at 06:16 PM
then why does NY still smell like pee?
Mark Ryavec September 06, 2012 at 06:47 PM
I would encourage the City of Los Angeles to authorize the City Attorney to appeal this intolerable decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. This decision ties the hands of municipal government, making it very difficult for the City (i.e., LAPD) to preserve the public right-of-way over any sidewalk or parkway in the City. Since it does not appear to set any standard for which citizens can occupy the public easement with their personal property or establish any limit on the amount of that property or the time period it must be allowed to stand on the public easement, the court has given anyone carte blanche to store whatever they want, for as long as they want, on the public easement. Something far more limited, such as a small amount of personal property, a small backpack, for example, including the items of concern in the original case, i.e., identification, personal and financial papers, personal photographs, medications, etc., allowed to stand for a short time, e.g., four hours, before removal, might make sense. But as written this decision will encourage larger encampments, as we have seen in Venice, with mattresses, out-houses, barbeques, tents and lean-toes, and even a bathtub, and permanent occupation of greater swaths of public right-of-ways, to the detriment of all citizens. This is an imbecilic decision and should be appealed.
Lightnapper September 06, 2012 at 09:46 PM
I wonder about liability should someone be injured on the sidewalk in front a person's home, tripping over items, or coming into contact with a caustic chemical, infectious agent, etc. If the city succeeds in making the homeowner responsible for the maintenance of sidewalks due to budget constraints, will this policy create legal confusion should an accident occur? I distinctly remember sitting in the back of ambulances as a city representative trying to elicit information from accident victims who tripped and fell on the sidewalk, or when getting off a bus. I was not employed by LAFD. I asked questions such as: "Have you been drinking or using drugs? Are you on any kind of medication? Are you ill? Did you faint? Do you wear eyeglasses? Did you have your eyeglasses on at the time you fell? Were you carrying anything in your hands? Was anyone near you, behind you, beside you? The intent seemed clear to me. If possible, redirect culpability away from the city. The info went into a "City Property Involved" incident report. Ms. Sobel stated that homeowner’s sidewalk liability would not be an issue in her radio interview. I am not so sure. Lawyers are paid to muddy the waters, and win for their client. I wonder if she will represent defendants "pro bono" who are sued should an accident occur and a plaintiff decide to take legal action against the homeowner. Anyone else share this concern? Or have links to court cases/rulings?
archie's bunker September 07, 2012 at 12:12 AM
How the city treats it's poor is a reflection on the city's character , or lack there of. Sure, NY moved 'em out, but to where? Perhaps a city near you! What should be done by a civilized city? Remember, YOU might be next.
Another WorldView September 08, 2012 at 02:23 AM
Your actions would be taken by CHOICE - not 'under neccesity'. If you weren't such a HATER - perhaps you would be pushing for a check-in center in Venice, where people could put their needed belongings, when they couldn't be with them... It may in fact be, that some of the UnHoused (whom you're fond of denigrating and making assumptions about) are leaving their belongings to go to work, as well. The Court decision makes absolute sense. What you and the lone (Bushie) dissenter are advocating for, is nothing less than LARCENY (check your copy of the Penal Code, if you doubt me - since you are such an advocate for the primacy of codes) by City employees, under 'Color of Law'. That hardly amounts to a stand for "Law and Order".
Another WorldView September 08, 2012 at 02:27 AM
Actually that's one of the many knocks against Giulliani - aside from his consultancy for the Saudis, and on-going role in the bogus "War on Terror", and right-wing fear-mongering. In my mind, Ghoulliani is complete scum - and his treatment of the UnHoused is clearly part of that. In civilized societies no one would be forced, or even want to , sleep in the streets. Perhaps your/his assumption about this society's level of civilization, is where that error originates.
Another WorldView September 08, 2012 at 02:31 AM
Not so - the city is simply barred from STEALING people's property. Nothing in the decision prevents the city from removing the property - provided that they don't destroy it - and allow people to re-claim it. Throwing away peoples' prescription glasses/medicine, and/or documents is needlessly cruel, and inhumane... Oh wait, I forgot to whom I was talking.
Another WorldView September 08, 2012 at 02:38 AM
Since most of her clientel is poor folks and protestors, I'd guess that Carol is not a stranger to "pro-bono" clients. Let's not forget the circumstances which led to this issue. The City was taking people's stuff and throwing it away - as part of a Ryavec-like campaign of cruelty and intolerance towards the UnHoused. I doubt that the city will be successful (in court), at making homeowners responsible for the sidewalks, traditionally granted to them (the city) as property 'easements'. Technically, most deeds and property lines extend out to the middle of the street - as well - minus those easements.
Another WorldView September 08, 2012 at 02:38 AM
Great points!
Another WorldView September 08, 2012 at 02:55 AM
The stuff you're describing were all "found-objects". Found where, you might ask - why in the streets and alleys of Venice. Do you think that the people who left those items out originally, were UnHoused, or Housed? My money is on the latter. And four hours seems like an arbitrary number. And unless you're questioning the citizenship of the UnHoused - my guess is that "all citizens" and "detriment", would be in the eye of the beholder. They might disagree with you. As for out-houses, are you now calling for accessible and secure 24-hour public bathrooms in Venice, all of a sudden. Certainly your adoption of this internationally unquestioned HUMAN RIGHT, would seem to be a change in position. Should the city begin installing self-cleaning restrooms of the sort near Pershing Square, in Venice now? Where do you think that they should be sited? 3rd and Rose seems like a good start - but I'll wait for your suggestions, too. "This is an imbecilic decision and should be appealed." There you go folks - Mark Ryavec is running on the 'let's waste money on frivolous appeals - to help justify a regime of cruel and inhumane policies' platform. By the time it gets to the Supremes - I wonder if you'll still have a hard-right majority to rely upon?
concernedneighbor September 08, 2012 at 03:13 PM
I agree a check in center would be a good idea. The question is how much stuff and how long? Do you think folks would really use it? I disagree on the large items argument. Couches and mattresses don't belong on the sidewalk regardless of where they came from. It's shameful for people to leave these items out bc they're too cheap or lazy to dispose of them properly but that doesn't mean that they should stay on streets. I think you'd agree that even the un-housed would benefit from the city cleaning 3rd street and removing what is clearly trash (food wrappers, empty cups and bottles, empty boxes) but now the cities hands are tied and 3rd will turn into a mess again which isn't good for the housed or un-housed...
Another WorldView September 09, 2012 at 12:07 PM
How about some (permanent/semi-permanent) trash cans for starters - stuff left in those, could reasonably be expected to be "stolen" by the city, on a weekly basis. I'm not arguing FOR large items - just pointing out that these are cast-offs from the Housed Community. As such (since the UnHoused rarely have the capability of taking them to the transfer station, themselves), it doesn't seem to me like any great harm, if people who are suffering without - otherwise - repurpose them in the meanwhile. As I've mentioned before - once folks realized that the couch which they'd inheirited, was suffering from Bed Bugs, they were the first to put it out by the curb (saving the city the trouble of navigating down an un(der)paved alley, to get it, in all likelihood). If they aren't a health hazard to the people on 3rd St - in their own estimation - and aren't making the sidewalk impassable - I personally find it cruel to take them away, from those who want them - but that's just me.
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