Homeless Have Property Rights

Los Angeles Skid Row

The government can’t destroy the possessions of homeless people left, but not abandoned, on sidewalks, says the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Constitution’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments protect them from government seizure and the summary destruction of property left momentarily unattended.

Property rights are the same whether for “Cadillac or cart,” says Judge Kim Wardlaw.  She was joined by Judge Stephen Reinhardt.

The ruling comes in a lawsuit brought by nine homeless people against the city of Los Angeles.

The 2-1 decision clarifies the constitutional protections that extend to the homeless, despite a local ordinance that allowed removal of their possessions from the streets.

An estimated 4,300 homeless live within the five mile radius of Los Angeles Skid Row.

Los Angeles argued it was authorized to seize and destroy property left on sidewalks by a local ordinance, despite a nearly identical injunction against destroying homeless property 12 years ago.

Even if homeless people violated the Los Angeles ordinance by leaving property on Skid Row sidewalks, the seizure of property is still subject to Fourth Amendment protection and the requirement of reasonableness in the seizure, the court said.

The homeless nine argued the city took their possessions temporarily left on public sidewalks while they  were eating, showering or using restrooms.

City workers must have a reasonable believe it has been abandoned, is an immediate threat to public health or is evidence of a crime, according to Wardlaw, writing the majority opinion.

Without that threat to health and safety, property should be secured for up to 90 days.

The plaintiffs, like many homeless residents of Skid Row, stored personal possessions, from personal identification, birth certificates, medications, family memorabilia, toiletries, cell phones, sleeping bags and blankets in rolling containers provided by social service groups.

Between February and March in 2011 the nine stepped away from their property to shower or eat, but had not abandoned their property.  City workers, however, seized and destroyed the carts.

The city didn’t deny it and in fact said it is nothing new.  It was previously enjoined from doing the same thing in 2000. (Justin v. City of Los Angeles, 00-cv-12352).

But the city argued it was authorized by municipal ordinance. The city’s only argument was that the constitutional protections did not apply to abandoned personal property.

“Violation of a city ordinance does not vitiate the Fourth Amendment’s protection of one’s property,” Wardlaw wrote.  “Were it otherwise, the government could seize and destroy any illegally parked car or unlawfully unattended dog without implicating the Fourth Amendment,” she said.

She made clear, that by extending additional Fourteenth Amendment protection of property interests the court was not creating a constitutionally protected property right to leave possessions unattended on public sidewalks.  Instead, she said the court recognized the basic notion that the homeless had an interest in continued ownership of personal possessions.

The interest is the same whether it is a “Cadillac or a cart,” she said.

In dissent, Judge Consuelo Callahan said that the pivotal question was not whether the homeless had a property interest in their seized items but whether the interest “is one that society would recognize as reasonably worthy of protection where the personal property is left unattended on public sidewalks.”

Case: Lavan v. City of Los Angeles, No. 11-56253




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