LOS ANGELES — Citing an immediate public health threat, the city of Los Angeles is asking 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 grappling with how to keep streets clean and safe while respecting the property rights of those who live there.
Fresno faces more than 30 lawsuits arising from its efforts to clean up downtown homeless encampments. In Hawaii, activists living in a De-Occupy Honolulu encampment sought an injunction against city authorities after they allegedly seized and destroyed personal property during a raid, according to court documents.
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. 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 last 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.” Homeless people 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.
“The presence of this unattended property makes it impossible to clean the sidewalks, leads to an accumulation of human waste and rotting food around and underneath, that in turn provides a breeding ground for vermin and bacteria,” the filing said.
At the city’s request, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health inspected skid row last year and cited the city for violations of county and state health codes, including an accumulation of human waste, needles, condoms and a rat infestation. The city launched a major cleanup effort, during which workers removed 278 hypodermic needles, 94 syringes, 60 razor blades, 10 knives, 11 items of other drug paraphernalia and two 5-gallon buckets of feces, according to the filing.
Homeless advocates said the effort showed how street cleaning can and should be done. Homeless residents were notified in advance, given time to remove their belongings and treated courteously, they said. Any items left behind that were not deemed a hazard were bagged, tagged and stored for 90 days.
But city officials contend that the lower-court rulings are causing a drain on municipal resources by forcing city workers to sort through unattended items for hazards, exposing their employees to unreasonable health risks and leaving the city open to the possibility of endless litigation.
Just days after a cleanup, trash and debris begin to pile up again, said Andy Bales, who heads the Union Rescue Mission on skid row.
“We never, ever had to battle that before the injunction, which has taken skid row back at least eight years to before all the improvements,” he said.
“It has emboldened people to leave their stuff everywhere.”
Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Assn., a business improvement district that runs the storage facility for the homeless, said she worries the rulings will undermine efforts to get people off the streets.
“No one’s mental illness, tuberculosis or staph infection gets better lying on a public sidewalk,” Lopez said.
“These are human beings who are often unable to make rational decisions for themselves and they need our help. Instead, we give them options that are self-destructive like you can amass and hoard your belongings on the sidewalk.”
Settlement negotiations are underway. Stan Goldman, a Loyola Law School professor, said it may be a long shot to ask the Supreme Court to weigh in, given how few cases it has taken up in recent years. But he said: “History has shown that the conservatives on the Supreme Court like nothing better than reversing liberal 4th Amendment decisions out of the 9th Circuit.”