Judge Tosses Claims Over Homeless Camp Removal

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the city of Eureka, California, did not violate the constitutional rights of longtime inhabitants of a homeless camp in the Palco Marsh, a city-owned wetland area and the site of a multimillion dollar trail project.

The area has been occupied by a large homeless population since 2002, but in March 2016 the city began handing out eviction notices saying the approximately 150 homeless people were in violation of its anti-camping ordinance.

Eleven homeless people – Stacy Cobine, Nanette Dean, Christina Ruble, Lloyd Parker, Gerrianne Schulze, Sarah Hood, Aaron Kangas, Lynette Vera, Aubrey Short, Marie Antoinette Kinder and John Travis – sued the city ahead of its May 2016 deadline to stop the eviction. They won a temporary restraining order from a federal judge in Oakland, who ordered the city to find them emergency shelter and storage for their belongings.

But U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White also gave the nod for the wholesale eviction to go forward, and on Wednesday tossed the plaintiffs’ claims that the city violated their privacy and property rights by trying to force them out of their tents and threatening to impound their belongings.

While White said the plaintiffs’ things are entitled to Fourth Amendment protection, he pointed to the ordinance’s provision on personal belongings as evidence of the city’s attempt to protect the plaintiffs’ property rights. The ordinance requires a 24-hour written notice before confiscating belongings left out in public, and promises to store impounded items for 90 days.

“Here, according to plaintiffs’ allegations and the text of the municipal code, the ordinance
includes procedural safeguards to prevent the erroneous or unconstitutional deprivation of
plaintiffs’ property,” he wrote.

White also disagreed the city had been deliberately indifferent to the homeless group’s physical safety by driving them out of their makeshift shelters and causing them to sleep on unfamiliar streets.

“In the absence of particular allegations that the state action put the plaintiffs in an inherently dangerous situation, the court is bound to find that the generalized dangers of living on the street preexisted plaintiffs’ relocation from the Palco Marsh,” White wrote. “From the allegations in the amended complaint, it appears that the encampment residents were permitted to sleep in a city-owned parking lot or were offered temporary emergency shelter accommodations. The current circumstances are certainly not ideal, but the court finds they do not amount to a deliberate indifference of placing plaintiffs in an inherently more dangerous situation than they had faced previously.”

White allowed the plaintiffs leave to amend most of their claims. He also refused to dismiss the groups’ Eighth Amendment claim that the city’s ordinance criminalizes homelessness, saying a law could impermissibly criminalize someone’s conduct under the Eighth Amendment if that person were acting involuntarily. In other words, the 11 homeless plaintiffs cannot help that they are homeless and shouldn’t be punished for it if the city fails to provide adequate shelter beds.

“Should this court find, through the development of the factual record that the evidence establishes that Eureka has available and adequate homeless shelter space, the camping ordinance would not be found to criminalize involuntary conduct as a result of homelessness,” White wrote.

The Eureka city attorney and the plaintiffs’ lawyer Peter Martin did not respond to email requests seeking comment.

The Eureka Waterfront Trail project is already well underway, according to local papers, which report it is scheduled to be completed by early 2018. After one day of the city’s cleanup effort last year, work crews had cleared away 88,000 pounds of trash and 1,000 needles.

 

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