Wed, Jun

Federal Judge Steps Up for the Homeless, Changes the Way Police Seize Their Property


THIS IS WHAT I KNOW-One of LA’s most dubious distinctions is that the city and county have the highest population of chronically homeless people in the country, almost all of whom live on the streets, according to a November report by the US Housing and Urban Development Department. Since 2013, LA’s chronically homeless population has grown by 55% to 12,536. Over a third of the nation’s chronically homeless live in California.

Back in September, Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a homelessness state of emergency and the city is working on finding innovative solutions to fund affordable housing projects. 

In the meantime, many of the homeless are subjected to seizure of the essentials they need to survive. A US Circuit Court judge ruled last Wednesday that local police have been overreaching in their confiscation of property without due cause. The LA Times reported the injunction prevents the city from seizing property without sufficient notice. The injunction also orders the city to sort and store confiscated items of value. 

The plaintiffs of a lawsuit that led to the injunction are four Skid Row residents, along with the Los Angeles Community Action Network and Los Angeles Catholic Worker, who hoped to include the entire city in the injunction that only covers Skid Row and surroundings, where more than 1,300 tons of personal property were confiscated in 2015.

Judge James Otero said, “The city, in many instances, appears to be confiscating all property, without differentiating the types of property or giving homeless people a meaningful opportunity to separate essential medications or medical equipment from their other property.” 

The city argued that the officers had provided notice before seizing the property and that some of the plaintiffs were exaggerating. Judge Otero responded that “some of the individual defendants appeared to take away property from a person lying on the sidewalk, visibly suffering physical pain.” 

The city has been tweaking an ordinance allowing for the confiscation of items left in public areas. An earlier law was struck down by court order in 2012 when it was found to have violated the Fourth Amendment rights of homeless individuals. Business and homeowners in the area have pressured the city and the police to remove the shopping carts, tents, and encampments of a growing homeless population. 

The most recent changes to the ordinance permit homeless people to keep only the possessions they can fit in a trash bin but the lack of adequate storage space precludes this. Homeless individuals tend not to be stationary so they’re left with no other storage space but the sidewalk. The city has two storage bins where the homeless may store property but space is limited and some items might not fit. Instead of coming up with additional options, the city has pursued property seizure, despite rejections in court. 

City Councilmember Mike Bonin addressed his concern about the cost of future lawsuits a few weeks ago but he voted for the recent changes nevertheless. Civil rights attorney Carol Sobel, who represents the current plaintiffs, has profited from suits against the city, taking in $1.7 million over the past few years. 

As the city continues to address the affordable housing issue, the number of chronically homeless in Los Angeles is unlikely to decrease, especially as rents continue to skyrocket. Instead of fending off lawsuits and trampling over rights, the city should focus on temporary solutions to the storage issues. Any changes should also offer an agreeable solution to business and homeowners, as well.


(Beth Cone Kramer is a successful Los Angeles writer and a columnist for CityWatch.) Photo credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.


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