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City officials ask Supreme Court to overturn homeless possession injunction

By Hayley Fox
Published: Thursday, February 28, 2013, at 11:09AM
Andrew Lopez

The L.A. City Attorney's office is filing with the Supreme Court today to ask that they overturn a lower court's ruling that protects homeless people's personal property from being taken and destroyed.

UPDATED AT 2:04 P.M.

Attorneys for the City of Los Angeles have filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to overturn a lower court injunction that prevents the seizure and destruction of possessions that homeless people leave on sidewalks.

“People have a right to live in a clean and safe place, even if their home happens to be on our city streets,” said City Attorney Carmen Trutanich.

The ruling in question is the Lavan v. Los Angeles decision handed down from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal in September 2012. The court decided in this case that the city was not allowed to remove and destroy unattended property on the sidewalk even in the process of cleaning Skid Row's streets, and cited Fourth and 14th Amendment violations.

The City Attorney's office states: "In a split 2-1 decision, the court held that -- despite the public health consequences, the city’s widespread legal posting of a street cleaning schedule, and the availability of local free storage for homeless possessions -- material left unattended and unclaimed on the public right-of-way could not be removed and destroyed."

On Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday, several homeless people complained that the city's appeal was unfair and misguided, while some acknowledged the health hazards that come with accumulating personal belongings.

Desmond Williams, 55, carried what he calls his "daily necessaries" in a big blue plastic and a smaller nylon duffel bag over his shoulder. He said he never walks away from them.

"Can't afford to," said Williams. "Anywhere I leave it, it's subject to get stolen, and if you leave it on the streets, the police will come and pick it up."

Williams says he's been on Skid Row for six months and keeps other possessions in a free storage facility on 7th street. But he says there isn't enough room there for everyone's belongings, so that puts a lot of people in a difficult position.

"You can just look around. It's messy, it's dirty, but just taking people's only personal belongings is crazy," Williams said, adding that authorities should consider how they would feel if they left their homes and someone came in and threw out their possessions.

"For all the homeless out here, this is their home," said Williams. "You're basically going to their home and taking all their stuff. Not good."

Williams also wore a mask over his mouth and nose, trying to protect himself from an outbreak of tuberculosis, which has reportedly infected 78 people-- 60 of which are homeless.

"We have an obligation to the homeless, as well as to the other residents and businesses on Skid Row, to ensure their health through regularly cleaning Skid Row's streets and sidewalks," Trutanich said in a statement, the L.A. Times reports. "The current outbreak of tuberculosis among that most vulnerable population should serve as a stern reminder to us all of just who and what is at risk."

Elzie Alexander has lived on Skid Row for 12 years and doesn't buy the City Attorney's logic.

"If you came through here and threw away every single person's property, you would not eliminate one case of tuberculosis," he said. "You've got a health hazard down here? OK. Throwing away people's property ain't gonna solve it."

The possession injunction the City is bringing to the high court has been a disputed issue on Skid Row. Some advocates for the homeless support the court's ruling; others say the injunction preventing seizure has led to an accumulation of trash in the area and deteriorating health conditions in the community.

The injunction arose from a case filed by eight homeless individuals about two years ago. They said that the city took their belongings when they left them temporarily unattended to appear in court, get food or find a restroom.

The court ruled in favor of the homeless individuals, stating that seizure and/or destruction of property temporarily left on a sidewalk violated homeless people's Fourth Amendment right against unlawful seizure of property.

Last year a federal court of appeals upheld this decision. If the Supreme Court takes the case and overturns the injunction, that decision could have widespread implications for the future of Skid Row.

KPCC's Brian Watt also contributed to this story

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