Homeless Still Have Rights to Property Left Unattended
(CN) - The "most basic reading" of the Constitution prohibits Los Angeles from unreasonably seizing and destroying the personal property of homeless residents, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.
Nine homeless residents of Skid Row sued the city for violations of their Fourth and 14th Amendment rights after police confiscated the property they left on the sidewalk. They say their legal papers, family pictures and other possessions were immediately destroyed.
Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles is home to one of the nation's largest homeless populations. The men and women who dwell there say they left their property unattended but not abandoned while eating, showering or using the bathroom.
U.S. District Judge Philip Gutierrez issued a narrow injunction barring the practice in cases where the items did not pose a public hazard. A divided panel of the federal appeals court in Pasadena affirmed Wednesday.
Los Angeles had claimed that the Fourth Amendment does not protect the property in question since there can be no expectation of privacy for those who leave personal belongings unattended on a public sidewalk.
"The city has ... asked us 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," Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for the panel majority. "Because even the most basic reading of our Constitution prohibits such a result, the city's appeal is denied."
"Here, by seizing and destroying appellees' unabandoned legal papers, shelters, and personal effects, the city meaningfully interfered with appellees' possessory interests in that property," Wardlaw wrote. "No more is necessary to trigger the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness requirement. Although the District Court based its holding on a finding that appellees had a reasonable expectation of privacy in their seized personal effects - a finding that is unnecessary to the proper analysis in this case - it correctly held that the Fourth Amendment's protections extend to Appellees' unabandoned property."
Writing in dissent, Judge Consuelo Callahan contended that the crux of the matter was not the plaintiffs' property interest, but rather whether "society" would deem unattended property worthy of protection.
"Because under the due process standard, society does not recognize a property interest in unattended personal property left on public sidewalks, the city's health and safety concerns allow it to seize and dispose of such property," Callahan wrote. "The majority impermissibly stretches our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence to find that plaintiffs had a protected interest in their unattended personal property."