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L.A. to ask high court to overturn ruling on homeless' belongings

February 28, 2013 |  6:37 am

Downtown LA

The city of Los Angeles is scheduled Thursday to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower-court ruling preventing the random seizure and destruction of belongings that homeless people leave temporarily unattended on public sidewalks.

If the court takes up the matter, the case could have broad implications for cities nationwide that are grappling with how to keep streets clean and safe while respecting the property rights of those who live there.

The Supreme Court filing comes after two years of legal wrangling between Los Angeles officials and homeless advocates over a controversial campaign to clean up downtown's skid row, which has the highest concentration of homeless people in the city.

"We have an obligation to the homeless, as well as to the other residents and businesses on skid row, to ensure their health through regularly cleaning skid row's streets and sidewalks," City Atty. Carmen Trutanich said in a statement. "The current outbreak of tuberculosis among that most vulnerable population should serve as a stern reminder to us all of just who and what is at risk."

Carol Sobel, who represents the homeless plaintiffs, said the TB outbreak, which has infected nearly 80 people and killed 11, has nothing to do with the property left on the streets. She accused city officials of deliberately allowing conditions to deteriorate in order to bolster their case, saying: "They have a public health issue of their making."

The dispute began when eight homeless people accused city workers, accompanied by police, of seizing and destroying property they left unattended while they used a restroom, filled water jugs or appeared in court.

The seven men and one woman had left their possessions — including identification, medications, cellphones and toiletries — in carts provided by social service groups and in some cases were prevented from retrieving them, Sobel said.

In a 2-1 decision in September, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the belongings the homeless leave on city sidewalks for a short period of time may be taken only if the possessions pose an immediate threat to public health or safety or constitute evidence of a crime.

In such cases, the court said, the city may not summarily destroy the possessions and must notify the owners where they can collect them.

City attorneys question whether the 4th Amendment protection from unlawful seizures and the 14th Amendment guarantee of due process extend to people who violate a city ordinance requiring them to remove their possessions during posted cleanup times, especially when free storage is available.

They say the decision, which upheld an injunction against Los Angeles, has created a "public health disaster."

ALSO:

 Feds try to curb outbreak of TB on skid row

Skid row street population surges back in Los Angeles 

Los Angeles skid row cleanup nets nearly 5 tons of refuse

-- Andrew Blankstein and Alexandra Zavis

Photo: Homeless people gather along Los Angeles Street on skid row. City officials are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a federal appeals court ruling preventing the removal of homeless people's unattended belongings from sidewalks. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times
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