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L.A. can't randomly seize possessions of homeless, court rules


Los Angeles and other cities are barred by the U.S. Constitution from randomly seizing and destroying property the homeless temporarily leave unattended on city streets, a federal appeals court decided Wednesday.

Upholding a court order against Los Angeles, a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the personal possessions the homeless leave for a short time on city sidewalks may be taken only if the possessions pose an immediate threat to public safety or health or involve criminal evidence.

 Even then, the court said, the city may not summarily destroy the property and must notify the owners where they can pick it up.

PHOTOS: Cleanup effort on skid row

The ruling stemmed from a court fight over a Los Angeles city ordinance aimed at cleaning up the city’s skid row. The city last year posted notices on the streets warning homeless people that their possessions had to be removed during street-cleaning days. City workers, accompanied by police, then seized and destroyed property they found unattended.

Homeless individuals sought and obtained a court order to stop the seizures, and the city appealed.

In ruling against Los Angeles, the 9th Circuit said violating a city ordinance does not strip a person  of his or her 4th Amendment right against unlawful seizure of property.

“Were it otherwise, the government could seize and destroy any illegally parked car or unlawfully unattended dog,” Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw, appointed by former President Bill Clinton, wrote for the majority.

A dissenting judge argued that the homeless had been given adequate warning to remove their possessions and were provided with a warehouse for storing them.

“Common sense and societal expectations suggest that when people leave their personal items unattended in a public place, they understand that they run the risk of their belongings being searched, seized, disturbed, stolen or thrown away,” wrote Judge Consuelo M. Callahan, appointed by former President George W. Bush.


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-- Maura Dolan in San Francisco

Photo: Belongings on the skid row area in Los Angeles. Credit: L.A. Times

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