The possessions of homeless people are protected under the Constitution and cannot be seized and destroyed by the government, according to a new decision by the United States Court of Appeals.
The Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments “protect homeless persons from government seizure and summary destruction of their unabandoned but momentarily unattended personal property,” Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote in a Sept. 5 opinion by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upholds a court order against the city of Los Angeles.
The possessions of homeless people cannot be seized unless the possessions pose a threat to public health or safety, are evidence of a crime or are contraband.
Property seized can be destroyed only after being maintained in a secure location for 90 days, barring an immediate threat to public health or safety.
On several occasions during February and March, 2011, Los Angeles city workers cleared and destroyed portable plastic tubs of personal items nine homeless people had temporarily left on the street while they went to shower, eat and perform other tasks. Even though homeless people pleaded for their stuff, the city wouldn’t give the items back, so lawyers for the homeless sued.
In Washington, tragedy prompted the State Deptartment of Transportation (WSDOT) to adopt a policy on handling the possessions of homeless campers.
In 2008, after a contractor for WSDOT killed a homeless man in Seattle with a brush-clearing tractor, the agency created a policy, “wsdot’s Guidelines to Address Illegal Encampments within State Right of Way,” in consultation with the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness. (“Each year, more than 1,000 forced from urban camps,” rc, Dec. 29, 2010.)
WSDOT must post a removal notice at a site at least 72 hours in advance, the guidelines say.
After that, “personal items that are not refuse, contaminated, illegal, or hazardous shall be placed in large transparent plastic bags,” the policy states, “inventoried to include the date, location and [a] brief description” and stored for 70 days, and wsdot will make efforts to locate the owner within the first 10 days.
The city of Seattle follows similar guidelines, but it doesn’t clear any encampments unless an outreach worker has first visited the site.
And outreach workers don’t visit encampments unless there are shelter beds available.