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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
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San Francisco can’t dodge lawsuit over homeless encampment sweeps

San Francisco cannot avoid facing allegations from homeless residents that its employees have swept encampments and violated their civil rights.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — San Francisco failed to convince a federal judge to dismiss a civil rights lawsuit from many homeless people alleging that multiple city agencies have conspired to violate their civil rights, by sweeping encampments. 

The city faces litigation from current and formerly homeless residents, the Coalition on Homelessness, looking to prevent it from enforcing ordinances to fine and move people sleeping on public property, or seizing or destroying their property. They say these actions violate their Fourth and Eighth Amendment rights by penalizing people for involuntarily sleeping outside without offering adequate shelter, or providing adequate notice and means to retrieve their personal property. The Coalition has spent three years documenting the city’s alleged unconstitutional practices.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu denied the city’s motion to dismiss, and allowed the plaintiffs’ claims of interdepartmental conspiracy to proceed. Ryu already granted a preliminary injunction after a hearing Dec. 22, saying the city was unlawfully conducting sweeps.

San Francisco has also been accused of sweeping encampments after that injunction was ordered, including during the atmospheric river storms that have drenched the state since late December.

In the 50-page preliminary injunction order, Ryu said it is “undisputed that San Francisco does not have enough available shelter beds for all homeless residents."

According to the 2022 San Francisco Homeless Count there were 7,754 homeless people living in the city in February 2022, compared to 5,080 shelter beds at last count in 2021 — a shortage of 2,674 beds. The count is likely lower than the actual number of unhoused people in the city, making the bed shortage likely higher than reported. When the pandemic began, San Francisco closed the 311 waitlist, and people cannot access same-day beds in the same way.

Ryu said defendants “wholly fail to object to or even address the substance or scope of the proposed preliminary injunction.” 

She noted San Francisco Police Department’s April 2019 bulletin describing “four categories of laws that various city personnel may enforce to address lodging or encampments,” totaling 15 laws and ordinances. But it includes restrictions on enforcement, emphasizing that “[o]fficers must secure appropriate shelter before taking enforcement action.”

Ryu wrote that the plaintiffs presented “uncontradicted evidence” showing that between 2018 to 2021 SFPD cited or arrested homeless individuals at least 2,952 times for lodging without permission or for refusing to obey a law enforcement order to vacate. She cited the landmark case Martin v. Boise where the Ninth Circuit held that “so long as there is a greater number of homeless individuals in [a jurisdiction] than the number of available beds [in shelters], the jurisdiction cannot prosecute homeless individuals for involuntarily sitting, lying, and sleeping in public.” 

“The court concludes that the balance of hardships tips in favor of plaintiffs, as does the public interest,” Ryu wrote. “Homeless individuals ‘risk losing not only their homes ... but their community and their possessions’ if San Francisco conducts encampment closures and seizes and destroys their personal property in violation of their constitutional rights.”

In a 20-page motion filed Nov. 3, 2022, the city says the case ought to be dismissed because the plaintiffs redundantly sued five city departments and two city officials. The city claims that the cause of action for conspiracy is deficient because alleged conspirators “collectively constitute a single legal entity, and conspiracy requires an agreement between two or more separate people.”

In court Thursday, Ryu told deputy city attorney Wayne Snodgrass that she is compelled by Ninth Circuit law dating back to 2001 to consider police departments separate from other city agencies, and will allow claims against different agencies to proceed. The plaintiffs’ attorney Rachel Mitchell agreed that the Ninth Circuit has not clearly ruled on whether to distinguish between multiple departments and said “We have alleged that multiple agencies are conspiring and the defendants by not arguing that … have already conceded that argument.”

“You didn't give me anything to distinguish between the police department and the other departments,” Ryu told Snodgrass. “So on that basis alone, you lose.”

She also told both sides that their administrative motions were inappropriate. The city cannot request clarification of the preliminary injunction, and the plaitiffs cannot file a motion for noncompliance and a monitor, as administrative motions. 

“You know better,” Ryu told both sides. “Don’t do that, it’s a misuse of the process. Let’s not get started on the wrong foot.”

Ryu also addressed claims that the city conducted sweeps despite the injunction. Deputy city attorney Jim Emery said the city only contacted people during January to offer them shelter from storms, and to clean the streets. 

Although Ryu said her order allows for people to be temporarily moved for cleaning, she said it is concerning that the city did not report whether people were clearly told that moving was voluntary. There is evidence that the city is using "significant police presence" and the same notices that tell people they must leave “and not come back.”

“I do think there is a potential for perceived threat, if you have a high level of law enforcement engagement, if people are being told to move,” Ryu said. “Under those circumstances, a reasonable person might think they better move … ‘or else I’m going to get in trouble with the police.'"

The judge said both sides must work on agreements about what can be done “to prevent giving plaintiffs reason to file a motion for noncompliance or for a monitor.”

Ryu set a date for an eight-day bench trial on April 15, 2024. 

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government

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