City can't seize possessions of homeless on Skid Row

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Homeless person on sidewalk

Homeless person on sidewalk. (AP Photo)

LOS ANGELES (CNS) – A federal appeals court today upheld an order against the city of Los Angeles to stop the random seizure and destruction of the personal possessions of the homeless on Skid Row.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals follows an injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez in June 2011. Gutierrez rejected the city’s claim that property along downtown’s Skid Row was abandoned or created a public hazard.

In its ruling, the appellate panel determined that the personal possessions of the homeless left briefly on city sidewalks may not be seized unless the items pose an immediate threat to public safety or could be used as evidence. In such cases, the city cannot destroy the property and must notify the owners where their property is located.

The court ruled that, under the U.S. Constitution, homeless people have an expectation of privacy in their property, even when they leave it unattended on public sidewalks for short periods of time.

The panel stated in the opinion written by Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw that the city had sought to have the unattended property of transients declared “uniquely beyond the reach of the Constitution, so that the government may seize and destroy with impunity the worldly possessions of a vulnerable group in our society.”

Wardlaw concluded that “even the most basic reading of our Constitution prohibits such a result.”

The court also rejected the claim that signs posted by the city, advising that property on the sidewalks would be disposed of, was proper justification that anything on the sidewalk was abandoned and could be taken and destroyed.

A call for comment to a representative of the City Attorney’s Office was not immediately returned.

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