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.