A U.S. District Judge denied a motion Feb. 14 to temporarily suspend sweeps of homeless encampments as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the city of Seattle and Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) alleging that the sweeps violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs relied on a Los Angeles court case Lavan v. City of Los Angeles, in which the court found that the city had violated the rights of people experiencing homelessness on Los Angeles’ Skid Row by seizing and destroying their possessions that had not been abandoned.
Judge Ricardo Martinez found that was not the practice in the city of Seattle, which “provided notice and followed the procedural safeguards” contained in rules meant to guide city departments on how to perform sweeps.
He concluded that the plaintiffs had not shown that they have a high likelihood of success based on the arguments submitted so far, a requirement for a temporary restraining order.
Attorneys for plaintiffs Lisa Hooper and Brandie Osborne requested the restraining order the week prior in response to continued encampment sweeps that they believe violate protections against unlawful search and seizure and due process by confiscating and destroying property without giving homeless people the opportunity to rescue their belongings. Real Change Homeless Advocacy project joined as a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Examples included a sweep of the Ballard Locks the week before in which a city employee allegedly cut open a tent with a set of box cutters, exposing personal possessions inside, as well as a cleanup at Greenlake East and Galer East just that morning, said attorney Todd Williams, representing the plaintiffs.
“We don’t live in a perfect world, but we do live in a world with constitutional rights,” Williams said.
Matthew Segal, defending the city of Seattle, told Martinez that the requested order was too broad, and would prevent officials from caring for land and property to which they were entrusted.
He was not aware of any city where so broad an injunction had been imposed, Segal said.
Martinez grilled lawyers on both sides on the specifics of their case.
He challenged Williams, the plaintiffs’ attorney, on the quality of the evidence he brought forward. Williams provided forms that homeless people filled out as declarations of their experiences with sweeps. Martinez asked whether the statements were that of the homeless people or counsel. He also questioned Williams on how a work crew was meant to differentiate between property and refuse.
He then challenged Segal andAssistant Attorney General Alicia Young on the specifics of who conducted the sweeps and what level of training they had in following city procedures.
Much of the back and forth between the plaintiff and defense counsel hinged on whether cleanup protocols used by city and state officials ensured that cleanup workers throw away only trash, not items such as tents, official documents or medications that people need and are difficult to replace. City officials recently revised those protocols, which were up for public comment through Feb. 15, but Williams argued that the city inconsistently applied the old version and could not be trusted to apply the new ones.
The old Multi-Departmental Administrative Rules (MDARS) required that cleanup crews provide 72-hours’ notice prior to a cleanup, and that the city store people’s possessions at a Seattle Department of Transportation facility for up to 60 days. Places that had been swept three or more times could have a generic “no camping” posting.
Encampments were defined as three or more tents or structures, so officials could sweep a campsite with a single tent or a pair of tents without applying the rules and dispose of people’s property without notice.
They could also remove “refuse, hazardous items, building materials, contraband; or evidence of a possible crime” without warning.
They were required to provide notice on how people could reclaim their property.
Advocates have argued — and city officials have agreed — that the mdars are inconsistently followed, and tracking sweeps has been difficult, at best. They made a push for new legislation that would force the city to prioritize cleanups, leaving alone camps that were in locations neither “unsafe” nor “unsuitable” and requiring both outreach and meaningful offers of shelters.
New protocols have been in beta since fall of 2016, Segal said. They improve on the previous iteration by mandating outreach prior to the cleanup, notice at least 72 hours in advance and changes the definition of a campsite from three tents to one. They also offer a delivery service to return property seized during the cleanup.