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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

City Violated Constitution in Seizing and Destroying Property of Homeless

Nine homeless people living in the “SkidRow” district of Los Angeles filed a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles claiming that the City violated their 4th and 14th Amendment rights by seizing and destroying their unabandoned personal possessions that were temporarily left on public sidewalks.  The lower court had issued an injunction against the City preventing it from confiscating or destroying any unabandoned property in Skid Row unless the City has an objectively reasonable belief that the property (1) was abandoned, (2) presented an immediate threat to public health or safety, or (3) was evidence of a crime or contraband.  If the City seizes property without evidence of an immediate threat to public health or safety, then it must secure the property for a period of at least 90 days before it can be destroyed.  The City appealed the lower court's ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, who affirmed the lower court’s decision.  Lavan et al. v. City of Los Angeles, No. 11-56253 (September 5, 2012)

The Court first balanced the invasion of the homeless persons' possessory interests in their personal belongings against the City’s reasons for taking the property, finding that the City acted unreasonably in violation of the 4th Amendment in collecting and destroying the property, which included family photographs, identification papers, and portable electronics, among other items.  The Court determined that the evidence demonstrated that the persons had no intention of permanently abandoning their property when they left it briefly unattended while attending to personal tasks.

The Court rejected the City’s argument that it was justified in seizing the property because the homeless persons violated City ordinances in leaving their property unattended.  As the Court noted in its opinion, “the logic of the City’s suggestion would also allow it to seize and destroy cars parked in no-parking zones left momentarily unattended.”

Finally, the Court rejected the City’s request that the Court “declare that the unattended property of homeless persons is uniquely beyond the reach of the Constitution, so that the government may seize and destroy with impunity the worldly possessions of a vulnerable group in our society,” finding that “even the most basic reading of our Constitution prohibits such a result.” 

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink 


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