Judge Rules LA Must Stop Taking & Destroying Homeless People’s Property

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Above Photo: Laurie Avocado

The city of Los Angeles has run into another setback in its ongoing quest to confiscate the property of homeless residents. A US District Court judge ruled Wednesday that local law enforcement has gone too far in seizing the property of homeless individuals without sufficient reason. As the LA Times reports, the judge issued an injunction that stops the city from taking belongings without sufficient notice and—in the event that property is confiscated—makes the city sort through it and store items of value.

It wasn’t a complete victory for the plaintiffs—four Skid Row residents along with the Los Angeles Community Action Network and Los Angeles Catholic Worker. They were looking for an injunction that would cover the whole city, where more than 1,300 tons of property was confiscated in 2015. Instead, the ruling will affect only Skid Row and its immediate surroundings.

Judge James Otero said in his ruling that “The city, in many instances, appears to be confiscating all property, without differentiating the types of property at issue or giving homeless people a meaningful opportunity to separate essential medications or medical equipment from their other property.”

For its part, the city argued that officers had given homeless residents notice before seizing property, and that some of the plaintiffs were exaggerating the truth. Otero, however, did not buy this argument, saying that “some of the individual defendants appeared to take away property from a person lying on the sidewalk, visibly suffering physical pain.”

The ruling comes as the city continues to tweak an ordinance that allows for the confiscation of items left in public areas (i.e. the possessions of the homeless). The law in its earlier form was struck down by a court order in 2012 that found it violated the Fourth Amendment rights of homeless individuals. That ruling might have ended it, but as visible signs of the county’s growing homelessness problem continue to pop up in the form of tents, shopping carts, and encampments, officials have been pressured by businesses and homeowners to find ways to make these items disappear. The latest amendment to the city’s property seizure law allows homeless individuals to keep only what they can fit inside of a trash bin.

The problem is a lack of proper storage space. Because homeless individuals move around a lot and have no permanent place of residence, they often have no other place to put their belongings but the sidewalk. The city does operate two storage facilities where homeless residents can leave their things, but space is limited and, because the storage containers at these facilities are literally garbage bins, some larger items may not fit. In spite of an obvious and recognized need for more and better storage options, the city has continued to pursue a course of property seizure that has been repeatedly rejected in court.

Debating the most recent changes to the ordinance allowing the city to confiscate property a few weeks ago, City Councilmember Mike Bonin worried that continuing to go after the possessions of the homeless would only invite more lawsuits (he ended up voting for the changes anyway). In the LA Times, he was quoted as saying, “We may as well open up the keys to reserve funds to Carol Sobel.” Bonin seems to have been quite correct. Sobel, a civil rights lawyer who has profited from suits against the city to the tune of $1.7 million over the last few years, represented the plaintiffs in this most recent lawsuit.