Can Homeless People Own Anything?
If you don’t have a home, the city of Los Angeles feels you have no right to have anything else either. Thankfully, federal judges disagree.
Eight homeless people left their property temporarily to use restrooms, fill water jugs or appear in court, the Los Angeles Times reports. They returned to their stuff — but there was no stuff. Among the things the city confiscated and destroyed were IDs, birth certificates, family memorabilia, medications, cellphones and toiletries. The people sued.
L.A. took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. It argued that it had to remove the items from sidewalks because it was cited by the county Department of Public Health for health code violations. (Los Angeles pretty much asked for the citations when it requested a county inspection.)
To be fair, the violations were gross: an “accumulation of human waste, needles, condoms and a rat infestation.” The city said waste and rotting food were found around and under homeless people’s things, and without removing them, it couldn’t clean the sidewalks thoroughly.
A federal district court issued an injunction against the city — a court order against taking people’s stuff. L.A. appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Turns out that was a bad move.
The Court of Appeals decided that “the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments protect homeless persons from government seizure and summary destruction of their unabandoned, but momentarily unattended, personal property.”
The Fourth Amendment guarantees people’s right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” In other words, the government can’t take your stuff “unreasonably.”
The Fourteenth Amendment, aka the equal protection clause, forbids public officials from treating certain people — like those without housing — differently from others. Stealing personal property is not something cities typically do to people who keep their things in their homes, but they treat homeless people differently, and that is a no-no.
The Supreme Court refused Los Angeles’s request to consider the case, leaving it bound by the lower courts’ rulings. The upshot: L.A. can’t take property from Skid Row without good reason to believe one of the following:
1. the property is abandoned;
2. it urgently threatens public health or safety;
3. it is evidence of a crime; or
4. it is contraband.
If the city passes that test and seizes possessions, it can’t destroy them unless they qualify for #2. If the items fall into #1, 3 or 4, the city has to keep them secure for at least 90 days to give the owner time to get them back.
Los Angeles isn’t the only place making off with homeless people’s things. The L.A. Times reports that there are currently 30 lawsuits against Fresno, CA for “cleaning up” homeless encampments. Hawaii is in trouble too.
Without a home to leave their property in, homeless people don’t have a lot of choices other than keeping it on the sidewalk. But they are just as entitled to protection from government search and seizure as everyone else. It would be nice if the Supreme Court would make that clear for the whole country, and even better if local governments would figure it out on their own.
Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock