LA Barred From Destroying Possessions of Homeless Residents

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge tentatively barred Los Angeles officials from seizing and destroying large items belonging to homeless residents, a key preliminary ruling in proceedings over whether the city can enforce rules banning large items from public spaces such as sidewalks.

Homeless residents of LA claim police and city sanitation workers violate their constitutional rights by seizing and destroying their personal belongings including tents, legal documents, medications and other items.

Tents, shelters and belongings line a street near downtown Los Angeles. (Nathan Solis / CNS)

Being homeless means lacking access to storage space and being forced to carry belongings wherever you go, homeless residents say in their complaint filed in July 2019.

After LA reported a 16% increase in the homeless population in 2019, advocates for the unhoused ramped up challenges to city-authorized sweeps of encampments and destruction of belongings.

Attorneys for LA say in court papers a city ordinance that bars residents from keeping bulky items — property that cannot fit in 60-gallon bins — on sidewalks and other public property is much-needed.

The law seeks to balance the needs of residents who want access to clean public space with the needs of homeless residents who have no alternatives but to take their belongings wherever they go, according to the ordinance.

But U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer disagreed, writing in a 22-page tentative order Tuesday that the city cannot remove such items without a warrant.

“The question here is not whether the city can ‘limit the size of items that a person can store in a finite public space,’ but whether it can seize and destroy items because they are of a particular size,” Fischer wrote. “The answer to that question is no.”

Fischer wrote that while the city has acknowledged homeless residents’ lack of access to storage space, the seizure and destruction of their property — even if unattended – is unreasonable.

“Although the city would understandably prefer homeless residents not “appropriate” public areas, particularly areas that the city spent millions of dollars revitalizing, the bulky item provision cannot be the solution to that problem,” Fischer wrote.

Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on claims the city’s actions violate their Fourth Amendment rights, Fischer found, adding in a footnote that plaintiffs demonstrated the items — such as cushions, dog cages and bicycles — are vital for daily activities.

The city has until April 6 to submit objections to the tentative ruling. The City Attorney’s office said it is reviewing its options.

If the ruling is adopted as final, the city would also be barred from enforcing a law making it unlawful for residents to resist or obstruct officials who seize or destroy items that violate the ordinance.

A spokesperson for the City Attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Los Angeles was previously forced to update its zoning laws after the Ninth Circuit upheld a ruling that destruction of homeless people’s unattended property violates the Constitution.

Following the ruling, protocol for sweeps of encampments required city officials to issue pre-removal and post-removal notices to homeless residents whose items were seized.

City officials can still seize and destroy items in the public way that are deemed a threat to public health and safety, Fischer wrote in the order Tuesday.

“The requested injunction would merely require the city to treat bulky items like every other item stored in public areas, permitting removal in a number of circumstances, including when items are unattended, blocking the sidewalk, or a threat to health and safety,” Fischer wrote. “Similarly, nothing in the requested injunction would hinder the determinations the city presumably makes on a daily basis as to whether items are unattended or abandoned.”

Attorneys for plaintiffs, which include community organization Ktown for All, did not respond to a request for comment.

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