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Cities can’t randomly seize possessions of the homeless, federal court rules

by AirTalk®

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Terrell Barrow is one of the last residents to move his belongings from Towne Street ahead of the arrival of LA Dept. of Public Works cleaning crews early on June 21, 2012. Bear Guerra/KPCC

Homeless citizens in urban areas across the nation, specifically those on Skid Row in Los Angeles, won a huge legal victory today. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-1 decision that the city of Los Angeles, including its police force, can’t randomly seize a homeless person’s property unless it’s a threat to public safety or serves as criminal evidence. This also applies to other cities in the United States. In those specific situations where property can be seized, it must be kept intact and moved to a location where the owner can retrieve it.

This all started when the City of LA posted flyers on Skid Row informing the homeless citizens that property must be moved on street cleaning days. When the property wasn’t moved, city workers had it removed and destroyed. Some of Skid Row residents obtained a court order against the city to cease and desist, which the city appealed.

The two judges in the majority said that homeless residents’ property is protected under the 4th amendment, even in public places. Otherwise, the court argued, illegally parked cars could be towed and destroyed as well. The dissenting judge said, common sense tells us we can’t leave personal items in a public place without the risk that they’ll be rifled through or destroyed. Where do you land? Should cities have more leeway to remove personal items out on the street in homeless enclaves like Skid Row? Or are the courts correct in protecting the property rights of the homeless?


Estela Lopez, Executive Director, Central City East Association

Carol Sobel, Executive Vice President, National Lawyers Guild

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