Citing an immediate public health threat, the city of Los Angeles will ask the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday 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 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 in this matter.”
Carol Sobel, who represents the homeless plaintiffs in the case, said the 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 men and a woman had left their possessions -- including identification documents, 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 that homeless people 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 at a warehouse operated by a local business improvement district.
They say the decision, which upheld an injunction against Los Angeles, has created a “public health disaster.” Homeless residents are leaving piles of possessions on the ground or in overflowing shopping carts, often covered by tarps and blankets, and sometimes with a note attached saying “not abandoned” or “mine,” according to a draft of the filing reviewed by The Times.
Although it may be a long shot, Stan Goldman, a Loyola Law School professor, said the Supreme Court could decide to weigh in on how to strike the balance between a city's responsibility to promote public safety and its obligation to respect the rights of the homeless.
“It is true that you can’t just search the belongings of anyone who is just walking down the street or sitting on the sidewalk,” Goldman said. “But on the other hand, for generations, the court has given the government broad leeway to use its powers to search and seize in non-criminal cases, when there is a reasonable belief there is a hazard or threat to public safety. That applies to wiring in buildings, quarantining people who have communicable diseases or even hoarders accumulating piles of garbage in their backyards.”
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 amid trash strewn on skid row. Credit: Los Angeles Times/Mark Boster