In the event of an arrest in King County, smaller personal belongings (wallets, purses, jewelry, etc.) are kept with the accused at jail and returned on release. There are few complaints about this system.
But anything larger than a purse (say, a backpack) is placed in "The Evidence Warehouse" south of downtown: it is a nondescript building on an off-street in the nebulous mass of SoDo, lined by a column of idling semi trucks on one side and train tracks on the other. In the distance is the unsmiling steeple of the Starbucks headquarters.
When released from municipal jail, says evidence warehouser Larry Jones, the accused receive half of a "safekeeping tag," detailing -- in fine print on the tag's bottom -- the location of their belongings and the protocol for picking them up. This tag is the rough shape, size, and consistency of a three-by-five card.
If these personal items remain in the evidence warehouse for longer than 60 days, they are thrown out. It's possible to extend this period of time, but a notarized affidavit must be obtained.
And that's bad news if your backpack includes every photo, every memento, every phone number, and every last connection you have to your past and the rest of society. Its possession and destruction could incur, or magnify, a breed of stress most of us have never had to think about. The protocol for dealing with possessions seized during encampment clearings has prompted enough public unease that some are beginning to ask questions, among them members of the City Council.
"Naturally, a lot of [Seattle's underserved] feel frustrated by the process," says Cindy Spanton of the Defender Association; especially, she went on, for those who suffer from a mental illness. Seized personal items may contain necessities, like ID or medicine, whose loss has debilitating results.
"Any kind of stress increases mental health symptoms.... Federal legislation [says] you can't receive public benefits while in custody," says Spanton. "And that's often read that you can't apply for public benefits while in custody." So, needed prescriptions received could be not only confiscated and destroyed upon arrest, but also denied upon release from jail.
Cutting through the necessary red tape to retrieve one's personal items can be a daunting task, even for those of sound mental health. But losing them entirely can pose a bigger problem. Dave Chapman is managing director of the Associated Counsel for the Accused, Seattle's primary public defender. He says that the loss of personal items can often complicate the defense of a client against criminal charges.
"A tremendous number of people with transient status are arrested for criminal trespass, theft, outstanding warrants, and so on," says Chapman last week. The seized possessions of those arrested for petty misdemeanors often contain what Chapman and other defenders term "exculpatory evidence": documents or other material that could exonerate someone of the crime they're accused of. The receipt, for example, for a supposedly "stolen" item might actually be buried in someone's confiscated backpack. And this confiscated backpack could find itself under a pile of other confiscated backpacks in a SoDo warehouse.
"[The existence of exculpatory evidence] is an extremely hard thing to argue in court if it's not found," adds Chapman.
It would be impossible to guess how much exculpatory evidence has actually wound up in the evidence warehouse or unintentionally destroyed, but that this has happened before, says Chapman, is far from unlikely.
You don't need to be busted to lose these kinds of documents. Alison Eisinger of the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness is working to document the loss of property among victims of the city's recent camp sweeps; one of the most common complaints she hears is of the wanton disposal of court documents and other legal papers.
Last Thursday, a group of scowling street kids in front of the evidence warehouse said they'd lost personal items during encounters with police. All of them had wound up at the warehouse at some point before, claiming lost sleeping bags, identification, and, in the case of one woman, a camera. One young man who has lived on and off the streets for the past few years and chose to remain Tomas for this story, had all of his personal possessions taken by the SPD last year; it was, he remembered, a six-hour ordeal and a few bucks in bus fare to retrieve them.
But while Tomas and his friends had complaints and grievances, nobody could offer a better way of handling possessed items. Inside the evidence warehouse, two friendly workers said they'd shredded Social Security cards, dumped sleeping bags -- but didn't like doing it.
"We'd like to see people get their property back," said warehouser Larry Davis. "For some people it's all they have. We just don't have the room."
More often than ending up in a warehouse, says the ACA's Chapman, the personal items of homeless people are simply left at the place of arrest or disposed of by police or others. Lisa Herbold, legislative aide to councilmember Nick Licata, wrote that the councilman was concerned with the confiscation of personal belongings of those living outside on city-owned property. Licata plans to look into "the existing city policies related to the confiscation of the property of people arrested for vagrancy, trespassing (and other crimes often associated with being homeless)." She also wrote that the councilman has asked the city's Human Rights Commission to review current policy related to the treatment of seized belongings.
In the meantime, a steady stream of campers will make their way to 730 S. Stacy St., where the warehouse is located. How many will find that 60 days is too long to wait?