Is the City allowed to throw away possessions that you leave temporarily in public places?

 

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

This question considers situations much different from what was covered in the post about the possibility that the police or other government employees might find possessions and assume that they are garbage or have been abandoned. Here, we will look at what happens when the government purposely empties out places where homeless people live.  

Many cities in the United States have launched clean-up efforts around holidays and major sports events to rid urban areas of the homeless. Some cities have undertaken these “homeless sweeps” not in connection with big events, but instead on the grounds that general city sanitation and beautification require it.

They say that some people are intimidated by the homeless or else don’t want to do business in a place that looks unpleasant and that homeless people and their possessions look bad. Sometimes they say the homeless cause health hazards. They take away homeless people’s possessions to prevent the homeless from staying where they have been.

Clearly, when government workers are required to separate homeless people from what they own there is no credible way for police or sanitation workers to claim that they merely mistook the stuff to be garbage. So a legal claim against a homeless sweep is not so much a matter of demonstrating what the public employees should have known, as in the situations when police or park employees simply found possessions and thought they were abandoned or garbage. Instead, this kind of dispute will emphasize what the government did know about who owned the stuff and why it was outside and how the government exploited that information to victimize citizens.

ACLU offices, homeless advocacy services, and other legal support agencies have fought against these homeless sweeps with a variety of Constitutional arguments.[1] Even though the U.S. Constitution does not specifically say that the government can’t take homeless people’s things, it has broad civil rights declarations that can be understood to mean that taking away the possessions of homeless people is unjust.

Some have argued that the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment was violated. Others have asserted that the Fifth Amendment right to compensation for government takings of property (also known as “eminent domain”) applied to the situation. Many groups have successfully used the same law that was discussed in the Lost and Found part of this chapter, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution which prohibits unjust searches and seizures.

Always, these arguments are accompanied by the Fourteenth Amendment. That amendment is useful for two reasons:
1. it makes these other Amendments apply to acts done by local and state governments because on their own those Bill of Rights protections in the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments only apply to the Federal government and
2. The Fourteenth Amendment affords the victims due process in their dealings with the government.

The cruel and unusual punishment arguments have not been successful. Courts tend to hold that cruel and unusual punishment can only be a component of criminal punishment.[2] Still, there is a strategic reason for putting it into claims; it reminds the court to think about how mean, how downright insensitive, it is to take away the last few things that people own.

The Fifth Amendment claim about compensation for property taken by the government tends to work well combined with a due process claim raised under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fifth Amendment authorizes the government to take over private property when necessary for some government purpose. It is easy to see why a local or county government could believe that encouraging tourism or alleviating public health problems would be the kinds of government purposes that might necessitate getting street dwellers out of a particular area. However, that same constitutional amendment “prohibits the exercise of the power of eminent domain without just compensation to the owners of the property which is taken[3]

The due process claims assert that the people whose things were taken are entitled to be alerted about sweeps in advance so they can move away voluntarily instead of losing their stuff. The due process claims also demand that people get the opportunity to reclaim their things. Combined, the Fifth Amendment claim about compensation for taken property and the due process claim for communication and cooperation say, “You took my things and so now I am entitled to have an opportunity to either get them back or be paid for them.”

Cases proving that the Fourth Amendment is violated by intentional removal of homeless people’s possessions have emphasized that even if they don’t live within walls people are entitled to have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their belongings.[4] To reach that conclusion, the courts do acknowledge that the things picked up in the sweep were simply on the ground outside in public places. But they recognize that “the interior of the bedrolls and bags or boxes of personal effects belonging to homeless individuals … is perhaps the last trace of privacy they have.” [5]

By demonstrating that the homeless sweep caused “some meaningful interference with an individual’s possessory interests in that property,” [6] lawyers for the homeless have convinced courts that taking away the stuff belonging to homeless people was against the Fourth Amendment’s protection from unreasonable seizures.

Making assertions about what makes something private or who owned the items in the first place, etc… is really only one part of succeeding in a case against a homeless sweep. Besides establishing those kinds of points that connect to the Constitution, it is necessary to prove that government seizure of possessions is more harmful to the homeless owners of those possessions than the sanitation problems (or other underlying reasons for enacting the sweeps) are to the cities.

This comparison, weighing the extent of the harm caused by the government’s action against the government’s need to take that particular action to solve a problem, is the formula for proving any claim that constitutional rights have been violated. When police or other government officials plan to roust the homeless by gathering up all of their possessions, they are acting with legal authority. Either an ordinance has been passed or a special order has been issued or some other legal action has authorized taking those possessions. So, whether the legal claim against a “homeless sweep” is about due process, government taking, search and seizure, or any other Constitutional right, it has to show that the law authorizing the sweep was itself illegal.

When they have been successful in these cases, lawsuits have usually not been able to stop the city from conducting sweeps, but they have managed to arrange for the protections identified above: advance warnings to give the homeless an opportunity to move their things away from the area to be “cleaned up” and, sometimes, safe storage of the possessions as well as a claims process for returning possessions belonging to the homeless. [7]


[i] Kevin Bundy, Officer, Where’s My Stuff? The Constitutional Implications of a De Facto Property Disability for Homeless People, 1 Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal 57 (Fall 2003). One of the exemplary homeless sweep cases was argued by the Pittsburgh ACLU. It is described and accompanied by copies of the legal pleadings and the settlement agreement at http://www.aclu.org/rightsofthepoor/gen/13454prs20030513.html.[ii] Johnson v. City of Dallas, 860 F.Supp. 344, 355 (N.D.Tex. Aug 18, 1994).   In 2009 the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty put forth a model order for police departments to implement as a foundation for police interactions with homeless people.  That order, which is only valid in cities that adopt it, declares that police cannot damage or destroy homeless people’s possessions unless they are known to be health hazards and that in arrest situations the police have to handle homeless people’s possessions in the same way that they would handle any other arrestee’s possessions (which typically means that they are listed on an inventory, stored by the police, and returned to the arrestee upon release).  That model order is online at page 31 of Criminalizing Crisis: Advocacy Manual. http://www.nlchp.org/Criminalizing_Crisis_Advocacy_Manual  Note that because this post is about property rights, the arrests that might go along with this kind of sweep are not addressed here. See the posts about involvement with the police and courts to read about arrests.

[iii] Black’s Law Dictionary 6th Ed., “eminent domain”

[iv] Pottinger v. City of Miami, 810 F. Supp. 1551, 1572 (S.D. Fla. 1992).

[v] Id. at 1572.

[vi] United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 113, 104 S.Ct. 1652, 1656, 80 L.Ed.2d 85 (1984).

[vii] Kincaid v. Fresno No. 1:06-cv-1445 (E.D. Cal. 2006); Justin v. Los Angeles No. CV 0012352 (C.D. Cal. 2000); Love v. Chicago 96-C-0396 (N.D. Ill. 1996); Sager v. Pittsburgh CA-03-0635 (W.D. Pa 2003)–settlement agreement available at http://www.aclu.org/FilesPDFs/sager.pdf. Annual “Illegal to be Homeless” reports from the National Coalition for the Homeless http://nationalhomeless.org/references/publications/ summarize effective advocacy work such as arranging for advance notice of homeless sweeps.

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