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Homeless Claim L.A. Blew Off Court Orders

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Los Angeles police violated a court order protecting homeless people in Venice Beach by continuing to seize and destroy their belongings, three homeless people claim in a federal class action.

Lead plaintiff Nancy Hanson sued Los Angeles in Federal Court.

She and co-plaintiffs David Busch and Denise Krajewski claim that in "an extraordinary display of arrogance," LAPD officers and Department of Public Works employees "swept through Third Avenue in Venice" without notice on March 7, 2012, and trashed their belongings.

As many as 70 homeless people live and sleep at Third Avenue between Rose and Sunset, according to the complaint. Hanson says the homeless people moved there after authorities forced them off Venice Boardwalk.

In June 2011, the Federal Court issued a preliminary injunction against similar police tactics on Skid Row. Lavan vs. City of Los Angeles bars the city from "taking and summarily destroying the property of homeless individuals without notice."

The 9th Circuit renewed the preliminary injunction in September 2012, without ruling on whether homeless people have a constitutionally protected interest in leaving their belongings on public sidewalks.

In the new complaint, Hanson claims that on March 7 last year, "The homeless community on Third Avenue in Venice woke early on that morning and, as they did every other day, neatly organized their possessions and left to get food, use a bathroom, obtain services at St. Joseph's and the Venice Family Clinic, both nearby, or engage in other common daily tasks.

"After nearly everyone had left, public works and the police arrived mid-morning with three large trash trucks. City employees and agents slashed protective coverings and ties and threw the property away. All of the items on the sidewalks were seized and thrown into the public works trucks."

Hanson says Busch retrieved some of his belongings after District 11 Councilman Bill Rosendahl intervened. Homeless services then drove Busch and others to a city yard in another part of Venice.

"When Mr. Busch and the others arrived, their property had been dumped on the ground. A few people were able to reclaim some of their belongings, but much of it had been irretrievably damaged or destroyed. Moreover, one of the public works trucks had apparently already gone to the yard on the other side of the city, making it completely inaccessible to the homeless individuals," the complaint states.

Hanson calls the city's crass action a "devastating blow," costing homeless people medicine, medical records, birth certificates, IDs, family photographs, clothing, tents and blankets.

She claims the city knew that the belongings had been "left unattended temporarily," and that a public worker "cut away a neatly packed cart that was deliberately secured to a tree and then threw away all of the property on the cart."

Hanson says the city never posted signs or gave them notice. And, "Astonishingly," she says, city officials claimed that a city ordinance "trumped" the Constitution and the court's orders, and "somehow did not apply in Venice."

The city "has made it clear that it believes it is above the law and the courts. This is the fifth time the city has been sued in two decades for the very same action directed against homeless individuals and the second time that it has been sued for seizing and destroying the property of homeless individuals in Venice," the complaint states. "Despite the fact that the courts have consistently found the city's conduct unlawful, the city brazenly repeated its illegal tactics."

The complaint claims that the ruling in Lavan settled three issues.

"First, the court held, and the 9th Circuit affirmed, that the property of homeless individuals is protected by the Fourth Amendment's protection against unlawful and unreasonable seizure. Second, the court held that the property of homeless individuals is not abandoned simply because they leave for a short time to use a bathroom, get food, or perform other necessary daily tasks. Third, even if the city could somehow reasonably believe that the property in question was abandoned, it may not be destroyed without notice and an opportunity to reclaim it."

The class seeks declaratory judgment, another injunction, and statutory damages.

They are represented by Carol Sobel of Santa Monica, who also litigated Lavan.

Sobel did not respond to requests for an interview.

Neither Councilman Rosendahl nor the city replied to requests for comment.

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