The Homeless Law Blog

The Homeless Law Blog is intended to be a research guide for people who are homeless and trying to learn about their legal rights and liabilities. It presents typical legal questions that arise in homeless life and then provides general information by introducing likely areas of law to investigate, showing search terms, and giving leads to primary law sources. The content of this blog is not tailored to anybody’s particular situation and should not be considered legal advice. Click on any of the categories on the right column of this screen to browse through a homeless law subject.

The administrator of this site is Linda Tashbook, Esq., an attorney licensed to practice in Pennsylvania and professional law librarian. She obtained her Juris Doctorate and Masters Degree in Library Science from the University of Pittsburgh.Her private law practice emphasizes legal aid for the homeless. She is the author of Family Guide to Mental Illness and the Law: A Practical Handbook (Oxford University Press, 2019). Prior to becoming a lawyer, Ms. Tashbook coordinated public library outreach to families in public housing and homeless shelters, served on the Allegheny County Runaway and Homeless Youth Task Force as well as the Allegheny County Homeless Education Network, and volunteered with various programs benefiting and involving homeless families.

In the comments sections following each question in this blog, please write about your relevant legal experiences with homeless life and please add links to resources that would be helpful to other readers who are interested in homeless people’s legal issues.

What if I can’t pay my tickets or fees and fines from criminal court?

We know that people who are homeless get charged with a lot of small crimes. Examples include loitering, panhandling, obstructing the sidewalk, trespassing, and littering. Very often, the penalty for these minor crimes is a fine—either a ticket or a fine imposed in court. The fine is supposed to be paid by a deadline.

If you don’t have the money to pay that fine and you miss the deadline, you can be charged with an additional crime which is usually called something like “failure to pay” or “contempt” in the local crimes code. This second charge might result in an additional fine or another kind of penalty such as community service or even jail time.

If the court system is able to communicate with you by phone or mail, which is not always possible when people do not have a permanent home, the payment office may contact you if you have had difficulty paying your fine. In that communication, they will likely tell you if it is possible to arrange a payment plan or an alternative to payment (such as attending a class or doing community service) if you cannot afford to pay. Being poor does not relieve you of criminal punishment; it just gives you an excuse for not paying the full fine by the original deadline. So if the court system tries to make arrangements with you, you are supposed to cooperate in forming a plan and fulfill your part of the arrangement. You may need to fill out forms or appear in-person for a conversation about your ability to pay.

You can ask for a payment plan or payment alternative as soon as your fine is assessed; you do not have to wait until they add a charge of non-payment and send you a second ticket. If you don’t give the court a way to contact you and you don’t reach out to the court before they come looking for you, these criminal charges will just stay on file until the next time you have an encounter with the police.

As these various charges and your lack of cooperation with the system mount up, so do the penalties that they can use against you. At some point, a police stop that might otherwise be uneventful will become a big deal because the officers will look you up and see that you have unresolved charges. They may take you to jail because of your outstanding charges.

 In March of 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a letter to state and local criminal courts regarding unpaid fines. The DOJ urged the court systems to confirm whether someone is financially able to pay a fine before punishing him for not paying it. It also called on the court systems to honor Constitutional due process rights. The letter spells out specific ways to honor due process: giving people notice before punishing them, giving them alternatives to payment, and not suspending their license or requiring expensive bond as the only ways of avoiding jail.

If your court system is not acknowledging your inability to pay criminal fines, your ACLU or the public defender’s office might take action on your behalf.

The ACLU published a report in 2010 about how people suffer increasing punishments after not being able to afford their court fines Subsequent to that report, state ACLU offices have produced helpful information tools for the public. Here are examples: Pennsylvania –  Washington–  ColoradoOhio .   Find your local ACLU affiliate to get instructions and other support if you cannot afford to pay a ticket or costs or fees assigned by a criminal court.

The National Association for Public Defense (NAPD) has a committee dedicated to the topic of Fines and Fees. http://www.publicdefenders.us/finesandfees Members of this committee have testified to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission about the terrible consequences that happen to people who do not have enough money to pay their criminal court fines. The Fines and Fees Committee welcomes input and offers resources to local public defenders. If you have a public defender who needs back-up to protect you from being jailed for not paying court fines, put that lawyer in touch with this group. You might like the NAPD’s Statement on Predatory Collection Practices. http://www.publicdefenders.us/files/NAPD_Statement_on_Predatory_Collection_Practices.pdf

How can I get my mail when I’m always moving around?

There are mail forwarding business that provide people who are transient  (often RV dwellers who are on the road rather than living in one RV community) with a street address.  The mail forwarding business will either scan the incoming mail envelopes and post them in a secure online private box for you to look at over the Internet or they will bundle the mail and physically ship it to you. Even though you get a street address through a mail service, you do not automatically get to claim that location as your legal residence. State laws about residency typically require you to be physically located in the state for a particular number of days each year. The list of mail forwarding services at the bottom of this page identifies two that will help you to register your vehicle and establish residence in their states.

Here is how the mail scanning services generally work: The company scans the envelopes that come for you. You go online and view the envelopes in your password protected online box and identify any that the service should open and scan. The service will then scan those documents straight into your confidential online box.

These services charge minimal flat rate fees, typically by the month or the quarter, to receive your mail. Depending on the company and the range of services you select, they may charge an additional per-page scanning fee for any documents that they take out of your envelopes. In other words, your flat rate can include just the envelope scanning or it can also include the document scanning as well. Of course, you do not have to register for the scanning service. If the mail service is in your city you can go there to get your physical mail every couple of weeks or once a month or on whatever schedule you establish with the mail forwarding service.

Examples of companies that provide mail forwarding and mail scanning services:

http://www.yourbestaddress.com/ (also provides vehicle registration services)

http://www.texashomebase.com/texasdomicileinfo.html (includes information about vehicle registration and establishing legal residency in Texas even if you are only there for part of each year)

https://travelingmailbox.com/

https://www.escapees.com/

https://www.earthclassmail.com/solutions
See the cities in which Earth Class provides street addresses https://www.earthclassmail.com/addresses

Why do people get in trouble for feeding the homeless?

One of the ways that the legal system protects homeless people is to keep them from being victimized, in various ways, by dangerous handouts. Food handouts, for example, when they are not cooked or stored properly, can make recipients very sick. So there are laws about food preparation and management. Restaurants, organizations, and food trucks all have to follow these laws. Typically, these are health department regulations. But there can also be criminal laws that apply–such as homicide and battery laws that would punish one person for poisoning another.

Some people think that they are being helpful by collecting and handing out unused prescription medicines to people on the street. That is illegal drug distribution in every jurisdiction. Only licensed medical doctors can legally decide which kinds of medicine a patient needs. Most of the donation punishment stories that upset the public are about food donations.

When companies or nonprofit groups operate a system for distributing food to the homeless, they have a limited degree of protection from the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. This is a federal law that protects food donors (whether they donate groceries or cooked meals) from various kinds of liability unless the food that they donate either makes a homeless person sick or kills a homeless person. Most of the time, these donors are not supposed to be charged with violating the federal laws about food packaging and food handling unless they are grossly negligent or intentionally commit misconduct with the food. If they know that something has gone wrong with the food and they are donating it to an organization that will then distribute it to the homeless, they have to tell the organization what went wrong.

Here is an example: Suppose a canned food company has a mix-up at its factory and a hundred cases of canned black beans are mistakenly labeled as canned tomatoes. The company cannot sell those, so they decide to donate them to the poor. This Food Donation Act requires that the canned food company explain the problem to the organization that they donate the cans to. The organization receiving those cans of beans has to (1) be able to fix those labels and then it has to (2) actually fix them. This is not a hard task: They can just print any normal white labels in their usual printer and write on those labels that a mistake was made in the factory packaging and these cans actually hold black beans, not tomatoes.

There is nothing in this federal law that treats major corporations differently than small local food donation services. However, the law specifically says that nothing in it “shall be construed to supercede State or local health regulations.” This is why food donors can still get in trouble for not having the right kind of dish washing facilities or not keeping food at the right temperature.

A chef in San Antonio, Texas who was serving gourmet meals to homeless people got all kinds of media attention when the police cited her for not operating out of a food truck. This chef had a permit for a food truck, but on the night that the police ticketed her, she was distributing food out of a different vehicle. The reasons for the food truck permit laws are all about food safety. Those trucks have to have a certain level of cleanliness and they need refrigeration and adequately warm operating areas for keeping hot food at a safe temperature, plus other features. This chef obviously knew about these rules since she had satisfied the requirements to get the permit, but on that night she brought out food that was not properly stored because it was not in a registered food truck. She truly did break the law and put people at risk.

Her response to the ticket, at least in the media, (she has not gone to court as of this writing) is that she has a First Amendment freedom of religion right to give food to poor people. That is a nice position to take, but it is not relevant to the law she broke. No matter what motivated her, she was only allowed to distribute food from the safe food truck for which she had a permit.

The federal Good Samaritan Food Donation Act only deals with punishment after food recipients have gotten sick. Local, county, and state laws aim to prevent anyone from getting sick by regulating what happens to the food before it gets served. Anybody hoping to offer food donations to the homeless should contact the county health department and the local police to find out in advance how they can be sure that their donations will be safe and legal. And anyone who does get in trouble for violating a food or medicine donation law should appreciate that the authorities are trying to keep the recipients safe.

1. Here is the federal food safety information that applies in all of the states. http://www.foodsafety.gov/

2. Here are links to state agencies regulating food safety. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/recalls-and-public-health-alerts/additional-recall-links/state-departments-of-public-health/ct_index

3. Here is a portal to the various sorts of laws relating to drugs. http://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-charges/drug-charges.html

What is the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS)? Does the law require homeless service providers to record information about clients?  If so, where does that information go and how is it used?  If I don’t answer the questions, will I be turned away?

A Homeless Management Information System is a database of personal facts about the homeless people in a community.  These facts are gathered from people when they get services from non-profits and government agencies that receive federal funds designated for homeless services.  So, if someone spends a few nights in a shelter that gets noted in the database.  If he needs insulin at the shelter, that gets noted in the database.  If he goes to some other funded facility for a shower and shave, that is entered into the database.  If he participates in vocational counseling or is a veteran or underwent a gender transformation, those facts go in the database.  As you can see, some of these facts are gathered just as a result of participation and some are gathered when participants answer questionnaires.

These databases exist because every local and state service provider that uses federal money to provide programs, services, or resources to homeless people must collect information about how it spends the money and then report that information to the federal government.  All that they report to the federal agencies (HUD, HHS, and the VA) are the numbers, no names.  They do use the names in the community though, so that the various providers can have a total picture of each person’s needs.

Every community of homeless service providers, whether it is a city or a county or a region—depending on how homeless services are organized in that area—contracts with a database vendor to create its own HMIS.  Then, as somebody goes from one homeless service agency to the next, he or she does not have to go through the whole exhaustive intake process each time and the provider can see any facts that might help them to best serve the client and make referrals to other entities or new programs that will be relevant to that individual consumer.

You have two ways of protecting your information:

  1. You can refuse to answer any of the questions that you object to. Refusing to answer will not make you ineligible for the service, but it will mess-up the provider’s records and can compromise its future funding.  In the unlikely event that a provider says that you are legally required to answer a particular question if you want the service, you should direct that person to page 11 of the HMIS Data Standards Manual https://www.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/HMIS-Data-Standards-Manual.pdf which specifically says that “client refused is considered a valid response.”
  2. You can obtain a copy of your database report and tell the provider to remove any items that you do not want to have on record.

Sources:

  1. See Title 24 of the Code of Federal Regulations Part 578 to read the regulations about Continuum of Care Services for homeless populations. http://www.ecfr.gov
  2. Consult the HMIS Data Dictionary for clear definitions of just about every topic related to homeless life and government funding. https://www.hudexchange.info/resource/3824/hmis-data-dictionary/
  3. The federal HEARTH Act established the requirements for federal agencies to collect and utilize client data and more accurately audit the way resources are allocated for the homeless population. Read about this law and related actions at https://www.hudexchange.info/homelessness-assistance/hearth-act/.
  4. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness coordinates local and state efforts to eliminate homelessness.  You can see their research publications, some of which use data from the HMIS collections, at http://usich.gov/usich_resources/.

Thank you to Bill Hale who suggested this array of questions, made sure I knew about resources, and checked his own data in the HMIS.

Can shelters require you to take a drug test?

Privately operated shelters are generally allowed to limit their populations in ways that might surprise you: They can allow people of just one gender to stay there. They can exclude children. They can exclude drug users. If the shelter is committed to keeping out drug users, then it has to be fair and legitimate in figuring out who is using drugs. The most reliable way to be sure that the shelter does not have any drug users is to conduct scientific testing.

If a shelter is testing for drug use just to prevent drug crimes from happening then, depending on whether and how it is connected with the government, it may be violating the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment which requires that investigators (or drug testers) have both 1. probable cause to believe that a particular person has committed a certain crime and 2. a warrant issued by a judge in order to search for evidence connected with the crime. http://law.justia.com/constitution/us/amendment-04/07-probable-cause.html  To simply guess that a person coming into a homeless shelter might be drug user would not, without other proof, justify a drug test.

If the shelter is targeting certain individuals or groups for drug testing, then those individuals or groups may have a legal claim of discrimination.

Even if the shelter is testing everyone or else is doing random drug testing that doesn’t target individuals or groups, the drug tests might be seen as invasions of privacy. The ACLU takes a strong stand on this and has won court cases by proving that the entities testing for drug use did not have reasons that outweighed people’s right to have the chemical content of their urine kept private. http://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/drug-testing Contact your local ACLU office if you want them to consider suing a shelter for its drug testing practices. http://www.aclu.org/affiliates

In most states, if there is any drug testing law at all, it is about when and how employers can test workers for drug use. You can peruse those state laws via Nolo Press at http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/free-books/employee-rights-book/chapter5-3.html Even though employers and shelters have separate specific reasons for conducting drug tests, the reasons are probably connected with safety in both settings. So, if you have to argue against a drug testing policy you might want to first see whether you have a state law and then compare the shelter’s policy with it to see if the policy looks like it complies with the law. If you don’t think it does, contact Project H.E.L.P. http://homelesslegalprotection.com/h-e-l-p-locations/ or the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty http://www.nlchp.org/contact_us.cfm or your local legal aid office. http://www.lsc.gov

When is it legal to take stuff from the trash?

**** 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. ****

 

Usually, property that is left for trash collection is considered to be abandoned.  It is perfectly legal to take abandoned property, but it isn’t always easy to tell if property is truly abandoned.  The picture here shows household furnishings alongside trash cans left on the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street just hours before the garbage truck is due.  Obviously, those household furnishings have been left for trash collection.

 

But what if the chairs and desk were there without trash cans nearby or not on trash collection day?  In those circumstances, it wouldn’t be so clear that this property was being abandoned.  The owners might be planning to move it somewhere or to have friends come and get it.  A safe way to avoid legal problems is to ask the owner if you can take the stuff.

 

If the stuff was next to or even inside of trash containers and those trash containers, whether dumpsters or ordinary trash cans, were on private property, then the stuff might not have been abandoned.  The owner might still be thinking about taking it back into the house.

 

If the stuff wasn’t abandoned, then taking it away without the owner’s permission is the crime of theft.  If you go onto private property to look through a dumpster or trash can, you can be charged with trespassing.  When you go to do legal research about trash ownership and abandonment, you are not likely to find much relevant information in the category of theft.   However you can find relevant cases and law journal articles in Google Scholar if you search for the words “dumpster” and “trespassing” in the same search.  Reading those cases, you can get an idea of how courts analyze whether property was abandoned and whether looking in a dumpster was a trespass in that particular case.  Here is one example in which somebody went hunting for discarded documents in a dumpster at a Walt Disney facility.

 

Searching for “dumpster” and “abandoned property” in Google Scholar, you will mainly find cases and articles about police conducting searches and seizures by going through trash containers.  Even the police cannot look in or take non-abandoned trash without permission of the owner or a judge who has issued a search warrant.  Here is one case with a good clear explanation of the law of abandoned trash. Smith v. State 510 P.2d 793 (Supreme Ct. Alaska, 1973).  Here is the seminal Supreme Court case on the topic of police access to abandoned trash.  California v. Greenwood 486 U.S. 35 (1967).

How can a squatter get the actual title to the property?

The earlier post about squatter’s rights identifies the behavior that can give a squatter rights to property.  But the legal right to property is only complete when the title is transferred. Usually, a title is transferred when a seller conveys property to a buyer.

A squatter attempting to get title is not buying from the seller; he or she is trying to get property for which no seller seems to exist.  The process for obtaining the title without having the last owner sell it to the buyer is called an “action to quiet title.”  Generally, there are three big steps involved in quieting a title:

  1. Searching for anyone who has a claim to all or part of the property, even if the claim is just a right to use the property for some purpose and not to own it.  For example, there might be a neighbor who has an easement that allows him to drive his truck through the property every morning.  This search is a big expensive investigation.  Most state laws about quieting title will require claimants to prove that they have thoroughly hunted in public records (vital and property)  and placed multiple ads in various newspapers as ways of searching for the current property owner.
  2. Filing documents in the appropriate court.  In this step, you have to write and submit assorted documents according to all of the rules required in your jurisdiction.  You might be able to find a sample of someone else’s action to quiet title by contacting or going to the court clerk’s office and paying for copies of the documents in that case.  If the clerk’s office will not provide you with a full case file, they might at least give or direct you to a list of things that you have to include in your court filing.  You can also look for sample forms in Justia.   Here is an example from the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania section in Justia Forms: “Fraudulent Conveyance- Quiet Title Packet.”  If you cannot find online forms for your county, you will need to go to a law library and find a book of standard real estate forms.  Any form from a book must be re-designed to match the requirements in your county court’s document rules. Here are the quiet title instructions for Kansas.  Here are the Colorado quiet title instructions. Here is North Dakota’s quiet title law. Here is an example of a Complaint to Quiet Title in Florida. Here is an example of a Complaint to Quiet Title in California.
  3. Making your claim.  When you write the court documents in an action to quiet title, you will have to tell about and show the proof that you satisfied all of your state’s requirements for adverse possession and that you also satisfied your state and county requirements for taking action to quiet title.  This is a detailed descriptive writing project, not merely the simple work of completing a form.  If your documents are accepted by the court, you will be assigned a date to appear in court.  In court, you will have to answer questions that the judge asks you.   If the current property owner does not come to court that day, you might have to do an additional procedure asking the judge to give you a “default judgment.”  If the judge decides that you have satisfactorily proved your claim, he or she will give you a document to file with the deeds office.

Under the law, what happens if a homeless person is found dead and nobody knows who it is?

**** 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. ****

State laws require coroners and medical examiners to investigate unexplained deaths and deaths that are likely to have resulted from a crime (attack, illegal drug use, etc…).[1]  So, if you die outside, in an abandoned building, or at a shelter or anyplace else outside of a hospital without having had a recently treated medical condition, the coroner or medical examiner will have to figure out the cause of your death. This might be a quick death scene evaluation where they can quickly determine that the victim died of exposure or it might be a longer investigation at the coroner or medical examiner’s lab.

In connection with determining the cause of death and issuing a death certificate, the coroner or medical examiner typically has a legal obligation to identify the person who has died.[2]   This might involve going through the decedent’s possessions, accessing police records, tracing dental records, searching through databases of missing persons,[3] tracing DNA…  The state’s “disposition of body” or “vital records/ death certificates” law will likely list some investigative steps for coroners and ME’s needing to identify bodies.  If the law does not list investigative steps, the guidelines for these investigations could arise from coroners’ professional standards published by the state coroners’ or medical examiners’ professional association or else an internal policy manual for the particular county coroner or medical examiner’s office.[4] 

State laws use the phrase “unclaimed dead bodies” to refer to people who have died without identification and whose remains have not been collected by relatives or others prepared to provide for burial or other final disposition.  These laws, which are typically in the statutory code’s “health and safety” category tell when and how to dispose of the unclaimed remains.  Some states require burial or cremation at government expense.[5]  Some allow the state’s anatomical board to regulate disposal of the body.[6]  Some allow the bodies to be donated for medical research.[7]  Note that medical examiners post information about unclaimed dead bodies in the National Unclaimed Persons Data System. (Note: You have to create a free log-in to use the NamUs database.)
See also the FBI site that lists found remains of missing and unidentified persons.


[1] Find those state laws through Justia, Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, or even using a search engine with terms like “California law coroner.”

[2] Sample laws:

Pennsylvania –  35 PS 450.506.1
“Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, no certificate of death or fetal death shall be issued in this Commonwealth if the body or fetal remains have not been positively identified unless the person issuing the certificate of death first obtains a DNA sample and submits the same to the Pennsylvania State Police for storage, for forensic DNA analysis, including nuclear and mitochondrial DNA typing, and for inclusion in any appropriate DNA database…”

Washington –  Rev. C. Wash 43.43.770

“It shall be the duty of the sheriff or director of public safety of every county, or the chief of police of every city or town, or the chief officer of other law enforcement agencies operating within this state, coroners or medical examiners, to record whenever possible the fingerprints and such other identification data as may be useful to establish identity, of all unidentified dead bodies found within their respective jurisdictions, and to furnish to the section all data so obtained. The section shall search its files and otherwise make a reasonable effort to determine the identity of the deceased and notify the contributing agency of the finding.”

South Carolina – Code 1976 17-5-57-
“If the body cannot be identified through reasonable efforts, the coroner must forward the body to the Medical University of South Carolina or other suitable facility for preservation.”

New York  – NY [Executive] Section 838 (McKinney)
“Every county medical examiner shall furnish the division promptly with copies of fingerprints on standardized eight inch by eight inch fingerprint cards, personal descriptions and other identifying data including date and place of death, of all deceased persons whose deaths are in a classification requiring inquiry  by the coroner where the deceased is not identified…

[3] Read Nancy Ritter, Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains: The Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster, NIJ Journal issue 256 (January 2007) https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/jr000256.pdf which is a Department of Justice article about use of the state and federal missing person registries.

[4] These manuals are not easily available. Here are the standards for autopsies. https://netforum.avectra.com/temp/ClientImages/NAME/eed6c85d-5871-4da1-aef3-abfc9bb80b92.pdf  If it isn’t available in your public library or the county law library, you might find excerpts posted on the county medical examiner’s Web site which you can navigate to via http://www.statelocalgov.net/.

[5] Examples:  New York. Social Service Law Section 141; California Health and Safety Code Section 7104; Nevada Revised Statutes Chapter 451.400; DC Code Title 5, Chapter 14, Part 11 (5-14-11); Official Code of Georgia Title 31 Chapter 21.

[6] Examples: Texas Health & Safety Code Section 691.023; Colorado Revised Statutes 12-34-201; Florida Statutes Chapter 406 Part 50.

[7] Examples: Ohio Revised Code 1713.34; Arkansas Code Title 20, Chapter 17, Subchapter 7; Delaware Code Title 16 Chapter 27 part 02.

What legal rights do you have if the police are rough with you?

**** 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. ****

Police are authorized to use force as necessary to stop and detain a suspect,[i] but if they use excessive force beyond what is needed to control the suspect, they can be found guilty of assault and possibly violating the suspect’s civil rights.[ii] If this happens to you, you can file a complaint with the Department of Justice.

There is not one specific law that declares how much force can be used because the circumstances in which police encounter suspects are so variable. The United Stated Department of Justice has a compilation of definitions about how much police force is permissible.[iii] It quotes the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights saying, “in diffusing situations, apprehending alleged criminals, and protecting themselves and others, officers are legally entitled to use appropriate means, including force.” It also quotes a Bureau of Justice Statistics statement that “the legal test of excessive force…is whether the police officer reasonably believed that such force was necessary to accomplish a legitimate police purpose.” The Department of Justice will also accept and investigate complaints of police misconduct.[iv]

The police officer’s determination about how much force to use is based mainly on the suspect’s behavior.   Sometimes, mentally ill people behave in ways that demonstrate hostility and dangerous unpredicatbility to the police.  Homeless advocates seeking less forceful police handling of mentally ill homeless witnesses, arrestees, and prospective arrestees should read the Council of State Governments Justice Center’s March 2010 report putting forth data and ideas about police interactions with the mentally ill.  The report contains research results and also research questions and policy recommendations for police departments to follow.

Many communities have created citizen police oversight programs that have ordinary local citizens collecting and investigating claims of police misconduct. Four models of programs have been identified:

1. those in which citizen review boards accept and investigate reports from the public
2. those in which the police department takes the complaints and then passes them along to the citizen review committee for further evaluation
3. systems in which the citizen review is only available as an appeal process after the police department has already handled the situation in its own way and
4. those in which complaints are filed with and handled by police departments and then an independent auditor reports to the public about the incidents and how they were handled.[v]

These programs exist with the hope of resolving problems more efficiently than would be possible through litigation. Efficiency means not only rectifying a particular dispute as soon as possible, but also quickly fixing the problem that led to the complaint against an officer. Sometimes the underlying problem is a stressed or violent officer and sometimes the underlying problem is stressed or uncooperative citizens. When the officer is found to be the cause of the problem, his department can retrain, reassign, or otherwise work with him to prevent future incidents that would be similar. When the problem arises from perceptions or behaviors by members of the public, the police department or another unit of the local government can implement a community education program to help avoid recurrences of that kind of problem.

The report that identified the four types of citizen involvement programs also found that victims of harsh police treatment feel validated when citizen review agrees with them and that the victims appreciate that their assistance in fixing a community problem has been valued.[vi]  Additionally, the report notes that police departments and local governments like to solve police misconduct issues using citizen involvement because it “improves their relationship and image with the community”[vii]  and helps them know, earlier than they would otherwise know, how and when officers are getting rough with people which not only stops problems sooner, it also helps them avoid getting sued.[viii]

When somebody does decide to sue the police for using excessive force, the first problem to overcome is the vague notion of how much police can do to physically restrain a suspect. Without a clear legal standard to compare against, plaintiffs have a hard time asserting exactly what was violated. The defending police department can respond by saying that there is no legal basis for the allegation. The next challenge in making a police abuse case is finding a way around sovereign or qualified immunity statutes which protect the government and public employees from being held liable for intentional or negligent harm they might cause while doing their jobs, unless they violate exact statutes or constitutional provisions.[ix]

Generally, in police excessive force cases, instead of suing with a personal injury claim, such as battery or infliction of emotional distress, plaintiffs sue in federal court using a Constitutional law claim. The claim is that an officer who hurts a suspect has committed an illegal seizure under the Fourth Amendment.[x]  Usually, people think of seizure as a situation when a possession has been taken away. But, in these police excessive force claims, it is dignity and health that have been taken away. The courts have specifically stated that “Where an excessive force claim arises in the context of an arrest or investigatory stop of a free citizen, it is most properly characterized as one invoking the protections of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees citizens the right to be secure in their persons against unreasonable seizures of the person.”[xi]

When deciding whether the force was excessive, the courts look at three things:

1. how severe the crime was (because the police might need to be more forceful with a violent criminal)
2. whether the suspect is likely to still be dangerous (for example if it is expected that the suspect still has a weapon or if the suspect is loud or aggressive when the police arrive) and
3. whether the suspect is trying to fight with or get away from the police.[xii]

Although torts claims, such as battery, can result in financial awards from the court, constitutional claims can only result in changed behavior. So, in addition to claiming that rough police conduct violates their Fourth Amendment rights, victims also claim that the police conduct violated their civil rights.[xiii]  The federal civil rights statute is Section 1983 within Title 42 of the United States Code.[xiv]  Most people just call it “section 1983.” Under that statute, victims of excessive police force can collect reimbursement for their out-of-pocket costs including medical bills and lost wages and they can also collect punitive damages to make the police department suffer financial punishment for having an officer who hurt somebody.[xv]

The final major challenge in proving that police used excessive force is collecting the necessary evidence. To prove police brutality against one person, the ordinary array of proof such as witness testimony, medically documented physical injuries, and analysis of the officer’s weapons would be used to make the case. But, in class action lawsuits against police departments, it is necessary to prove patterns of police misconduct by showing who tends to get rough and when that has happened in the past. The ACLU recommends that litigants investigate how often police on that force fire their guns or use their clubs and that litigants then analyze that data to see whether particular officers use weapons more than others. They also suggest looking at the age and race of the officers who use their weapons the most compared to the races and other characteristics of their victims.[xvi]


[i] Model Penal Code §3.07(1) Use of Force Justifiable to Effect an Arrest, §3.07(2) Limitations on Use of Force §3.07(3) Use of Force to Prevent Escape from Custody §3.07(5) Use of Force to Prevent Suicide or the Commission of a Crime.[ii] Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692, 101 S.Ct. 2587 (1981). See generally, Linda J. Collier and Deborah D. Rosenbloom, Arrest, 5 Am.Jur.2d. §145 (2006).

[iii] U.S. Dept. of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Use of Force Data is available at https://ucr.fbi.gov/use-of-force.

[iv] The U.S. Department of Justice has a full explanation of the federal laws against police misconduct and instructions for filing a complaint. See United States Department of Justice, Addressing Police Misconduct, https://www.justice.gov/crt/addressing-police-misconduct-laws-enforced-department-justice.

[v] U.S. Dept. of Justice, Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement: A Review of the Strengths and Weaknesses of Various Models is available at https://www.ojpdiagnosticcenter.org/sites/default/files/NACOLE_Civilian_Oversight.pdf.

[vi] Id. at p.10.

[vii] Id. at p.11.

[viii] Id.

[ix] There are thousands of state and federal court cases about qualified immunity. Some of the prominent U.S. Supreme Court cases include Saucier v. Katz, 533, U.S. 94; 121 S. Ct. (2001) (A police officer who quickly pushed a political demonstrator into a police van was entitled to qualified immunity because his need to act speedily to protect the Vice President from this uncooperative and potentially dangerous demonstrator was reasonable.) Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800; 102 S.Ct. 2727 (1982). (Citizens’ rights to collect damages must be weighed against the rights of public officials who constantly bear the risky responsibilities of relying on their discretion in performing public duties.) Wilson v. Lane, 526 U.S. 603; 119 S.Ct. 1692 (1999). (A defense of qualified immunity from having to pay damages is available to public officials who have not violated a particular law and were simply trying to do their work. So, when there was not established caselaw declaring that bringing news reporters to an arrest would violate the Fourth Amendment, police were granted qualified immunity from having to pay damages to the family whose home was filmed during the arrest.)

[x] U.S. Constitution Amendment IV. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”

[xi] Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 394 (1989). See also Jones v. Philadelphia, 890 A.2d 1188 (Pa. Comm. 2006) and Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 843; 118 S.Ct. 1708, 1715 (1998).

[xii] Graham v. Connor at 396; St. John v. Hickey, 411 F.3d 762,771 (6th Cir., 2005); Payne v. Pauley 337 F.3d 767, 778 (7th. Cir. 2003)

[xiii] Glenda K. Harnud, et al, Civil Rights: Excessive Use of Force 14 CJS §140

[xiv] 42 U.S.C. §1983. “Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law…”

[xv] Wagner v. Memphis, 971 F.Supp. 308 (W.D Tenn. 1997); Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 103 S.Ct. 1625 (1983); Newport v. Fact Concerts, 453 U.S. 257, 101 S. Ct. 2748 (1981).

[xvi] The ACLU’s Fighting Police Abuse: Community Action Manual is available for free online at http://www.aclu.org/police/gen/14614pub19971201.html. The section titled “Gather the Facts” has the suggestions mentioned here.

If you lost your home because of a tax lien or other tax matter, and the tax authority collected the debt by selling your home, there might be leftover profit from that sale that you are entitled to. How can you collect that if you don’t have an address?

**** 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. ****

Property tax sales are generally conducted by the municipal or county governments that collect property taxes. This means that it is necessary to look in the municipal or county code to find the rules about when and how properties will be sold to pay-off a property tax debt.[i] The phrase “tax sale excess proceeds” will likely be the heading for the rules section about money owed to the homeowner after the house is sold to pay the tax debt.

The rules will establish a schedule for property tax sales. Perhaps the town or county only has one property tax sale every quarter. Maybe property tax sales occur on the last Friday of the month. Usually, the schedules establish a short enough time within which to sell the home that the person who lost the home can still be located. Knowing that there is likely to be money coming from the sale of his home, a newly homeless person must remain in contact with the agency (probably the sheriff’s department) selling the house.

Note that even though this question is about losing a house because of a tax debt, the same legal analysis works with any debt in which a house was collateral. If the house is taken away to pay debt and is then sold by the creditor for more than the amount of money owed, the debtor is supposed to get the leftover money. The legal right to collect those proceeds does not always come from any particular law. It is a simple common law principle of debt law that the creditor is only entitled to the amount he is owed.[ii] Some states might have this principle included in their statutes. Some agencies such as state departments of revenue or banking might include it in their separate regulations. Whether it is written in the law or not, this principle still holds true.

In the hassle and confusion of losing the house and trying to get re-established elsewhere while dealing with the financial papers and tumult, anyone might lose track of procedures. It is easy to understand how someone in these circumstances might not recall who to go to for a refund. In most states, the treasurer’s office keeps track of “unclaimed property” – a fancy way of saying money that rightfully belongs to citizens whom the government cannot locate.[iii]

“Unclaimed property” might be these excess proceeds from creditor house sales, unclaimed stocks, old certificates of deposit, neglected bank accounts, money from insurance policies, and more. Anyone who can use the Internet can search the state treasurer’s unclaimed property database.  A claimant can write a letter to the state treasurer instead filing a claim online. State agencies do understand that for many people the Internet is hard to use or is not available

In many states, simply finding the unclaimed property listing on the Internet is only the first step toward getting it back. There is usually a form to submit, a signature to be notarized, and that ever challenging proof of identity. As in dealings with the federal agencies, it is generally feasible for a homeless person dealing with the state treasurer’s office of unclaimed property, to either use a street address where he doesn’t live but can receive mail or to prove his identity with the help of social service agencies where he is known as a client.


[i] Here are some examples of tax office notices to homeowners whose houses are sold to pay off tax debts:
– Brazoria County, Texas

The sale of property for delinquent taxes may generate excess funds over and above the amount of judgment.  These funds must be turned over to the clerk of the court issuing the order of sale for safekeeping.  The retention period is two years from the date of sale.

Once the District Clerk’s Office receives the excess proceeds from a tax sale, a certified letter will be sent to the defendant within 31 days of receipt. To release the money, we must have a court order signed and dated by the presiding judge. The payor’s name, address, the amount of money as well as the person to whom the check is to be made payable must also be provided within the order.
http://www.brazoria-county.com/dclerk/AccountingRegistry.asp
Sierra County, California
“If the property is sold, lien holders and the former owner may claim proceeds in excess of the taxes and costs of the sale.”   http://www.sierracounty.ws/county_docs/collector/faq2012.pdf
Alaska
“If the proceeds of the sale of tax-foreclosed property exceed the total of unpaid and delinquent taxes, penalty, interest, and costs, the municipality shall provide the former owner of the property written notice advising of the amount of the excess and the manner in which a claim for the balance of the proceeds may be submitted. Notice is sufficient under this subsection if mailed to the former record owner at the last address of record of the former record owner.” Title 29 Alaska Statutes Chapter 45 Section 480.
http://touchngo.com/lglcntr/akstats/Statutes/Title29/Chapter45/Section480.htm (Site not published by the state of Alaska.)

[ii] Dan B. Dobbs, LAW OF REMEDIES- DAMAGES, EQUITY, RESTITUTION§4.1 (West, 1995)

[iii] State unclaimed property offices are listed at http://www.unclaimed.org/. (Enter as an “owner.)The federal unclaimed property office (where you can find out about pension funds, mortgage interest refunds, etc…) is at http://fms.treas.gov/faq/unclaimed.html.

If you earned money this year, but you don’t have an address to put on the tax return, do you still have to pay the taxes?

**** 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. ****

Basically, anyone who earns more than about $3,000 (married filing separately) or $9,000 (single)[i] during one year in the United States has to pay income tax whether he has an address or not. People can definitely earn enough money to owe income tax even though they cannot afford housing. Day laborers can certainly earn more than a few thousand dollars  in a year. Trust funds can pay someone more than the minimum taxable amount in a year.

An interesting definition relevant to the beginning of the tax return might cause a homeless person to think that income tax returns do not apply to them. While in most encounters with the Internal Revenue Service, people are referred to as “taxpayers,” the income tax returns refer to the person responsible for the form as “head of household”– defined in the tax code as someone who “maintains as his home a household which constitutes for more than one-half of such taxable year the principal place of abode, maintaining the household during the taxable year is furnished by such individual.”[ii] This definition is only meant to distinguish between the tax liabilities of people paying for the household and the people who are dependant on the ones paying for the household, not to exempt people living without a household. There is no section of the tax code establishing that a household has to be a set location, certainly not one with an address.

The first equation taxpayers figure for their tax returns is the amount of gross income which the IRS defines as “all income from any source.”[iii] Gross income includes money in hand as well as interest on financial accounts, prizes, and possibly Social Security payments- depending on the taxpayer’s circumstances. Generally, Social Security payments are not taxed if they are the only source of income. But, if the taxpayer owes taxes from previous years, Social Security payments can be garnished to pay off that tax debt.[iv]


[i] Internal Revenue Service filing requirements as described in the IRS chart of Filing Requirements for most taxpayers.  http://www.irs.gov/publications/p501/ar01.html#en_US_2010_publink1000220675

[ii] 26 CFR Subtitle A, Chapter 1, Subchapter A, Part 1, §2(b)(1)(a).

[iii] 26 CFR Subtitle A, Chapter 1, Subchapter B Part 1, §61(a).

[iv] For a general discussion of this, see Tax Topics – Topic 423 http://www.irs.gov/taxtopics/tc423.html. For full details see IRS Publication 915 regarding Social Security and Railroad Retirement Benefits http://www.irs.gov/publications/p915/index.html.

If your pets cause damage or injuries, what can the law do to you?

**** 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. ****

Ordinarily, the civil law punishes pet owners by mandating that they pay for medical expenses and damage caused by a pet’s attack, even when it was a friendly attack with unfortunate consequences. Since those financial payments generally resolve the matter sufficiently, people are not often at risk of going to jail because a pet has ruined someone’s things or hurt someone. Unfortunately for poor people, human nature has a desire for revenge and attack victims who cannot collect any money for their suffering might just go to the police for support.

There is a spectrum of mild to drastic criminal charges that the police can use regarding pet attacks. When the attack was connected to violating the leash law or some other local ordinance, the criminal penalty will probably be a ticket.  It would probably be the kind of case that can involve an appearance before a judge, but will not involve a jury trial.

If it appears that the owner ordered the animal to attack the victim, the charge might be something like using the pet as a weapon to commit an assault. That kind of case and the others along this spectrum will be handled with all the formal proceedings of a jury trial. To prove that assault charge, there will have to be eyewitness testimony from people who saw the pet owner give the order or else there has to be background testimony from someone who knows that the animal was trained to attack people. When the prosecutor believes that the pet owner had such a lack of concern for people’s safety that he ignored signs that this kind of attack was likely to happen, the owner can be tried for criminal negligence. In situations when the victim died as a result of the attack, the owner can go on trial for homicide.[i]


[i] A helpful book with chapters about dog bites and dangerous dogs is Mary Randolph, EVERY DOG’S LEGAL GUIDE: A MUST-HAVE BOOK FOR YOUR OWNER, Nolo Press (2007).  See also the free pet law  material from that book’s publisher. http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/dogs-cats-pets/    Summaries of relevant cases and citations to state statutes are in Ward Miller, Modern Status of Rule of Absolute or Strict Liability for Dogbite, 51 American Law Reports 4th 446 (1987-updated to 2006).

When can the animal control authorities take away your pets?

**** 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. ****

Municipal ordinances (source 1source 2) regulate pet licensing as well as pets’ outdoor behavior. In most places, the local animal control authority, a.k.a. “the dogcatcher”, will take away a pet only when it has been found unattended and unleashed walking around on the loose or because it has injured people or other animals. But they can also take pets away if they believe those pets are victims of cruelty or neglect. Keeping pets outside in extreme weather and feeding pets out of garbage cans might both be considered cruel or neglectful treatment.

If you truly are the owner of an animal, as evidenced by a license, you have a constitutional due process right to be informed of where your animal is being held and what you have to do to get that pet released.[i]  Ordinarily, cities have ordinances or animal control authorities have internal rules that dictate how that information is to be conveyed to pet owners. To make a successful due process claim, you have to prove that either the process delineated in the rules or ordinances wasn’t followed or else that the lack of such rules or ordinances denies you due process.

The most common way of tracing an animal’s owner is by using the contact information on the animal’s tag. If the pet owner became homeless after that tag was issued and the contact information no longer leads the shelter or animal control office to the right person, there is not always a second way of trying to track the owner down. Similarly, if the animal does not have identification, like a collar tag or microchip, etc… showing how to contact its owners, the animal control authority generally does not have a legal obligation to try to track down an owner; the resources necessary to reach out into the community trying to find out whether anyone is missing that animal just make it too expensive a practice for the law to make it mandatory.

Although the law does not specifically say so, common sense says that if the tag information is no longer correct or it is possible that the animal’s tag came off or someone in animal control doesn’t do a job right, pet owners have to take responsibility for contacting the local animal shelters when a pet is missing. If you don’t find the pet on your own, you might never get it back; the shelter could let someone adopt your pet or, worse, they might destroy it.

Violating some pet behavior laws will result in fines rather than confiscation of the pet. Failure to clean up after a pet or walking it without a leash or not preventing it from incessantly making noise are likely to result in a fine as penalty. Most of the time, pet owners are notified of these legal violations by getting a ticket, like a traffic ticket, in the mail. But, police officers can simply hand that ticket to someone who does not have a known mailing address. Even if you get a ticket (a.k.a. citation) that does not fully identify you by name and address and even if you cannot pay the fine, you still need to communicate with the animal control authority and possibly your local court, depending on how the pet ordinances are enforced in your town.

If you have not found a way to correct the lack of a leash or loud dog or other problem before going to court, it is appropriate to ask the court for help in obtaining a leash or other equipment that might be too expensive for you and which will put your pet in compliance with the law; sometimes animal courts have relationships with charitable organizations that can help with those sorts of matters. If the court is not able to intervene and help you equip for legal compliance, then ask them for the names of agencies that might help and, at the same time, ask if the court will consider dismissing the ticket against you if you return to court in a week or two with the leash or muzzle or pooper scooper that will prevent the offense from occurring again.


[i] Com. v. Gonzales, 588 A2d. 528, 535; 403 Pa. Super 157, 169 (Pa. Super. 1991); Clark v. Draper, 168 F.3d 1185, 1189-90 (Cir. 10, 1999).

Are you allowed to own pets if you don’t have housing for them?

**** 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. ****

It is a simple fact of American life that while humans are allowed to walk the streets unaccompanied and without identification, animals cannot. Befriending a bird in the park and involving oneself in that bird’s daily schedule might feel like having a pet, but it is not. Having a pet means being responsible for the animal’s care and safety. In the case of large pets like cats and dogs, not only does this mean feeling internal personal responsibility for feeding and walking a pet, but also having actual legal responsibility for licensing and vaccinating the animal. If an unlicensed animal, or even an untagged animal that is licensed, is captured by municipal authorities, it can be put to death.

Licensing a pet makes owning it legal.[i]  In order to get that license, a pet owner has to pay a fee and give an address where he and the animal live. This doesn’t always mean that by definition a homeless person cannot legally have pets; it can mean that the pet has to be registered to a legitimate address where mailings relating to the pet will be passed along to the homeless owner. This address can be a private home or an organization where the homeless person is known well and maintains regular enough contact to pick up messages.

Your local pet licensing requirements are in your city code.  Find the city code at  http://www.municode.com/library/library.aspx or, if your city is not included there, by linking through the federal government’s roster of cities. http://www.usa.gov/Agencies/Local_Government/Cities.shtml.  Looking at your city’s website, you will not only find the code containing ordinances about pet ownership, you will also find the form to submit for that license.


[i] For more information about pet licensing laws, see Margaret C. Jasper, PET LAW, Oceana Press (2007).

If you don’t own or rent a place in which to store your possessions, but store them in somebody else’s home, do the homeowners have the right to move or use your things? Do they have the right to throw them away if you are gone for any particular period of time?

**** 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. ****

There are two areas of law to look at in answering these questions: contracts and torts.  A contracts analysis would consider whether the homeowner had agreed to take care of your things or at least store them for a particular amount of time and whether you had any obligations in return. Torts is the area of law that is known more casually as “personal injury.”  A torts analysis would look at the act of “conversion” which means taking unauthorized control over someone else’s possession.  A milder tort claim that might apply but would be harder to prove is “trespass against chattels” which is a claim against someone for unauthorized use of possessions.[i] Both a contract claim and a tort claim would be made in civil court, probably small claims court depending on the monetary damage that has been suffered.

In the contract dispute, the person whose possessions were taken or discarded seeks to show that the homeowner stopped protecting or storing the possessions. In other words, the terms of the storage bargain were violated. (A contract claim would probably apply to a situation involving the homeowner’s use of the stored possessions only if he used them so much that they wore out; only in that extreme kind of situation would it be likely to say that using the stuff breached an agreement to store and care for it.)

Since contract law comes from past cases, rather than statutes, the facts of each dispute are compared to previous cases with similar facts. Those facts have to be backed with good proof. If the possessions were in a church locker because that church had a policy that poor people could store things there for up to thirty days, then the court claim would have to include a copy of that written policy or admissions from church officials about the existence of the policy.[ii]

If the possessions were suddenly gone from a friend’s basement, the claim would have to demonstrate where and for how long the friend agreed to keep the stuff. Relatives of the homeowner might serve as witnesses to the agreement. Perhaps the homeless person can convince the court that he had another place where he would have moved his things had he not relied on this friend to keep them.

Clearly, there will be different facts involved with each situation, but the person trying to prove that an agreement existed always has to show as much detail as possible about the content of the agreement and the way both of the parties to the agreement knew those terms. Then, conveying that the terms were not followed will convince a court that the contract was breached.

To make the conversion claim, it is necessary to prove that even though the homeless owner of the possessions put them in the custody of the homeowner:
1. the homeowner took control over the stuff and
2. the homeless owner of the stuff could not get it back after asking for it or was not even able to ask for it.

Under the common law, and still in many states, the court claim to sue someone who has converted someone else’s possessions to his own is called “trover.” In filing that kind of lawsuit, it is proper to say something like, “the plaintiff is suing the defendant in trover to recover money damages for the television that plaintiff stored in defendant’s house and which defendant converted to his own possession by installing it in his den and subsequently refusing to return it to the plaintiff.” Although this example, which was only intended to show how the words “trover” and “conversion” relate to each other, makes a claim for money damages, that is not the only remedy for conversion. It is also proper to sue for return of the possessions, especially if they have sentimental value.

Note that a conversion claim is not only used when someone appropriates another person’s stuff. It is also correct to make a claim for conversion if someone storing things threw them away or gave them to someone else or otherwise made them unavailable to the owner.[iii]

See the Homeless Law Blog posts about court for information about bringing a contracts and/or torts case in civil court.


[i] It has been said that both of these tort claims are really the same when somebody takes and carries away another person’s possession. Wint. V. Alabama Eye and Tissue Bank, 675 So. 2d 383 (Ala. 1996).

[ii] This example is used to demonstrate that even though the word “homeowner” is generally being used in this section, the legal reasoning applies to any private favor-type of arrangement that is not as formal as having a fee-based storage deal.

[iii] To find cases involving conversions in the state where you live, look in a West case digest or a legal encyclopedia published by West using the topic “trover and conversion.” The digests and encyclopedias will show dozens of ways that people take control over other people’s things. They will also have lots of real-life examples of how people tried to get their stuff back or tried to prevent the person who was only supposed to store it from using it.

Can the homeless have savings bonds or financial accounts?

**** 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. ****

The short answer to this question is that you do not have to be poor to be homeless. A person may have any number of reasons for not living in a private or permanent home. So, being homeless does not automatically mean that a person cannot have financial accounts or bonds.

Homeless or not, however, everyone has to pay taxes on the interest or dividends earned on financial accounts. Banks and investment houses are required to report their customer earnings to the Internal Revenue Service. Even when people without their own homes do not receive the tax forms or interest and dividend statements mailed by financial institutions, they are still obligated to pay their taxes because those financial assets are their property.

Having assets such as savings bonds or trusts can make a homeless person ineligible for federal benefits including housing programs.[i] It might be necessary to spend those assets before applying for federal assistance.[ii]

Eligibility guidelines for Medicaid are available at http://www.cms.hhs.gov/home/medicaid.asp; housing eligibility is at http://www.hud.gov/; disability is at https://www.ssa.gov/disabilityssi/. See also the interactive benefits eligibility form at http://www.govbenefits.gov/govbenefits_en.portal.

Trusts

Trusts only make payments at certain times under circumstances that are written in that particular trust document. So it may not be necessary or even possible to spend them before applying for federal housing or food stamps, etc… The terms of the trust document might say that the beneficiary can only collect if someone dies or other things happen beyond the beneficiary’s control. If the trust pays out one big lump sum every year, that annual payout can disrupt federal benefits by temporarily making the recipient too wealthy for the program. And if a trust beneficiary just applying for federal benefits still has funds that were previously paid out from the trust, then that paid out trust money might be a high enough amount to prevent him from getting the federal benefits (housing, medical assistance, temporary aid to needy families, etc…)

People deemed by the Social Security Administration to be disabled, can benefit from a “special needs” trust.[iii]  This kind of trust can be established by an agency or a parent or guardian and the funds can come from various sources (including money awarded in a court case). The funds in the trust can only be used for disability related expenses such as equipment, therapy, and medication and will not affect federal program applications. An existing trust can be changed to a special needs trust.

Savings Bonds

Savings bonds are long-term investments identified by serial numbers. Because they can be redeemed for cash almost immediately, savings bonds count as assets in federal program applications. If they are worth more than the current asset threshold for benefits they have to be redeemed and spent before federal benefits will be granted.

Even though the owner’s address is included in an application to get a savings bond, the Treasury Department certainly would not expect that people are still at the same address years later when their bonds mature. Redeeming bonds is done in person by presenting the bonds at a major bank.

If the bonds are lost or destroyed, the owner can still cash them in by completing a form for the U.S. Treasury Department that will then be used to make sure that the bonds have not already been cashed. The information that has to go on that form is mainly for identifying the bond. You have to know the serial number, the date the bond was issued, the name and address you had when you got the bond, and your social security number.

The form, which is Treasury form PD-F-1048, also asks for explanations of when and where the bond was last seen and who else might have had access to it.[iv]  Because a replacement bond will be issued so that the owner can cash it in at the desired time, it is necessary to provide an address on that Treasury form so that you can receive it somewhere. That address does not have to be for a place where you live, only a place where you can pick up mail.


[i] Income determines whether a family is eligible for federal housing programs. According to 24 CFR §5.609(a)(4) “annual income also means amounts derived…from assets to which any member of the family has access.”

[ii] Spending down too quickly or transferring it to someone might make an agency suspect that you still have access to the money and are trying to pretend that you no longer have it. When you read the law about a federal benefit program, see if there is a section about “spending down”.  Here is an example: 42 USC §1396p(c) is the section of the Social Security Act that tells how that agency will determine when asset transfers affect eligibility for medical assistance benefits.

[iii] 42 USC §1396P(d)(4)(a)&(c). See also, Daryl L. Gordon, Special Needs Trust, 15 Quinnipiac Probate L. J. 121-131 (July-Dec. 2000) and the following books: Stephen Elias, SPECIAL NEEDS TRUSTS (Nolo, 2005); Barbara D. Jackins, et al, SPECIAL NEEDS TRUST ADMINISTRATION MANUAL: A GUIDE FOR TRUSTEES (IUniverse, 2005).

[iv] The form for redeeming savings bonds and other related information is at http://www.savingsbonds.gov/.

Can you please help me understand why children in state custody do not qualify as homeless per the McKinney-Vento Act?

**** 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 was posted by a homeless advocate.

REPLY:

Several recent Congressional bills have proposed new ways of defining homeless children.  You can find these bills and lists of the actions Congress has taken in connection with them at http://thomas.loc.gov/.   

The proposed Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2011 defines homelessness children and teens as those identified as homeless by school districts, Head Start programs, Runaway and Homeless Youth Act programs (RHYA), and early intervention programs under Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. 

 

In January 2009, the following definition was put forth in HR 29.  Homeless children include “…a youth verified as homeless by the director of a program funded under the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (42 U.S.C. 5701 et seq.), or a designee of the director…a child verified as homeless under section 602 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (20 U.S.C. 1401) by the director or the designee of such program, and the family of such child …and a child verified as homeless under section 637 of the Head Start Act (42 U.S.C. 9832) by the director or designee of such program, and the family of such child.

In August 2008 the House of Representatives passed a revised general definition for homeless person has passed in its proposed amendments to the McKinney-Vento act.  The proposed amended act is available at Part 8 about “Homeless Prevention Activities” subpart C encourages “providing family support services that promote reunification  of (i) youth experiencing homelessness with their families and (ii) children and youth involved with child welfare or juvenile justice systems with their parents or guardiens.”  Clearly, this defnition identifies as “homeless” those children and youth who have guardians or are wards of the state through either the child welfare (foster care) system or the juvenile justice system.  The proposed amendments further call on communities to develop “policies and practices relating to the school selection and enrollment of homeless children and youth to ensure that homeless children and youths and their parents are able to exercise their educational rights…” Section 402 Community Homeless Assistance Planning Boards  (f)(B)(i)(II)(dd) .  (Click on the hyperlink above and scroll down to this section.) 

 

Families experiencing homelessness can view the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s  many resources about educating homeless children to find out about  the steps of keeping kids in school while making transitions between shelters and other temporary housing arrangements.  Another very informative resource about homeless children’s access to education is The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

 

Until a new definition is added, you may want to read the history of the existing law.

I looked at legislative history for the McKinney-Vento Act to ascertain how Congress came to define “homeless children and youth” as they did.  I have not found any hearing testimony or research reports that demonstrate the origin of their decision to define homeless children in connection with the places where they are located rather than in connection with the adults (private individuals or agencies) who are responsible for them.  Note that homeless adults are also defined based on their lack of “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence”. Since the definition (which is quoted further down in this message) goes to the trouble of identifying children “awaiting foster placement”, there’s reason to think that Congress must have thought about kids in state custody.  See 42 USC section 11302   See also the NLCHP’s system for determining whether a child satisfies the current definition of homeless.

I think that the only ways to figure out Congress’s reasons for limiting the definition as they did are:

 

1. To do more thorough legislative history research than I did.  I merely skimmed hearing testimonies and House Conf. Report 101-951 (2001) for sightings of the phrase “homeless children”.  You can find Congressional hearings from 1995-present for free on the Web at http://www.gpoaccess.gov/chearings/index.html.   You can find numerous congressional reports and statements about proposed and existing legislation by searching the terms “homeless children” in the Congressional Record http://thomas.loc.gov/home/r101query.html.  Note that this link takes you to the 101st Congress which debated amendments to the McKinney Vento Act.  You can change the number 101 in that Web address or click on the session links on the Congressional Record screen to search in a different session of Congress.  The 106th and 107th Congresses also have a lot of relevant material. 

 

2. To contact your legislators and enlist the help of their legislative aides in tracking down the reason for excluding foster children and kids in other forms of state custody.  Find your representatives and senators.

 

You might find some useful information in one of these articles:

 

Strong, James H. and Virginia M. Helm, Legal Barriers to the Education of Homeless Children and Youth: Residency and Guardianship Issues, Journal of Law and Education v. 20 no. 2 pp. 201-218 (Spring 1991)

 

Ernst, Greg and Maria Foscarinis, Education of Homeless Children: Barriers, Remedies, and Litigation Strategies, Clearinghouse Review vol. 29 no. 7-8 pp. 754-759 (Nov. – Dec. 1995).

 —Ask your public library to get you photocopies of these articles  through Interlibrary Loan.—

 

Clearly, advocates are still trying to convince Congress to broaden the definition of homeless children and youth.  Here is a quotation from Jim Purcell, Executive Director Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, speaking at the House Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support on February 27, 2008.

 

“We also encourage members to weigh in during the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. CWLA has joined together with a number of other groups including some of the advocates for homeless children and families to amend and to increase funding for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Children’s program to clarify current law to assure that foster children are covered by the same protections for homeless children.” 

 

Link to the Child Welfare League of America.


Should you need it for any purpose, though I expect you already have it, here is the definition of “homeless children and youths” from 42 USC Section 11434a:

 

(2) The term “homeless children and youths’–

 

(A) means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence (within the meaning of section 11302(a)(1) of this title); and

 

(B) includes–

 

(i) children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; are abandoned in hospitals; or are awaiting foster care placement;

 

(ii) children and youths who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings (within the meaning of section 11302(a)(2)(C) of this title);(iii) children and youths who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings; and (iv) migratory children (as such term is defined in section 6399 of Title 20) who qualify as homeless for the purposes of this part because the children are living in circumstances described in clauses (i) through (iii).

 

 

Is it illegal to smell bad?

**** 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. ****

Local nuisance laws legislate against interfering with other people’s “use and enjoyment” of a place. And individual facilities or entities, including government offices, can make their own rules about how to handle bad-smelling people. The legal system is then used to argue about whether those rules comply with existing law and whether the rules are being applied in a just way.

Public buildings, meaning those operated by government, such as libraries and post offices differ from private businesses, such as malls or individual stores. Under the Constitution, these “government actors” are required to treat people in certain ways that are enumerated in the Bill of Rights and subsequent constitutional amendments as interpreted by cases analyzing those parts of the Constitution. That body of law is known as civil rights law and is supplemented by federal civil rights statutes which further regulate the treatment of citizens by government actors.

It is fundamental to a democratic government that citizens have access to government. When that access involves being physically present and the government wants to limit anything about the way access is provided, those limits have to be made within the scope of civil rights law. This kind of limit, specifically regarding the way people smell, has been examined by cases in which public libraries tried to keep bad smelling people out of their buildings.

The flagship case of precedent for bad grooming in public libraries is Kreimer v. Morristown [1] in which the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a library rule that said “Patrons whose bodily hygiene is offensive so as to constitute a nuisance to other persons shall be required to leave the building.”[ii] Kreimer, a homeless library patron barred by that rule from entering the library, asserted in court that the rule violated his First Amendment rights to use the public library for reading, writing and thinking. But the court held that “this rule prohibits one patron from unreasonably interfering with other patrons’ use and enjoyment of the Library; it further promotes the Library’s interest in maintaining its facilities in a sanitary and attractive condition.”[iii]

Subsequent courts have also upheld policies excluding unclean people from accessing public libraries. But in 2001, a District of Columbia court[iv] found a library policy to be unconstitutionally vague because it listed as a minor offense, “Conduct or personal condition objectionable to other persons using the Library’s facilities or which interfere with the orderly provision of library services….[including] objectionable appearance (barefooted, bare-chested, body odor, filthy clothing, etc…).”

 

The court explained that having a few examples of what a person might consider to be objectionable followed by “etc.” simply did not set forth a clear limit on what would be tolerated. That court also said the library rule violated Fourteenth Amendment due process rights because it didn’t provide enough information for patrons to know in advance whether their appearance would be acceptable, especially because any employee who happened to be watching the door could make the decision about acceptable appearance according to his or her discretion at that moment. Clearly, just because there is a policy about body odor doesn’t mean it is a legal policy.

Libraries are not the only public buildings where a person’s odor or general hygiene might interfere with the comfort of others. Courts, post offices, and transportation facilities are other examples to consider. Courts usually have various decorum rules requiring that behavior in court not distract from the trial or hearing and declaring that the court is owed respect. Judges can use their own discretion to interpret those rules and have been known to remove trial participants and even lawyers for what the judge has deemed inappropriate dress or grooming.[v]

One can reason by comparison that the amount of time spent in a post office or on a bus is much shorter than in a library or courtroom and so the odor problem would be less significant in those places. It could also be said that because access to the court for the sake of asserting or defending one’s rights is required by law, a person simply has to be allowed there in whatever condition he appears. But those kinds of analysis are simply conjectures; a jury might not agree with them. Since case law has declared it acceptable for public libraries to limit access based on hygiene, there is a foundation for the same kind of limitation in other public buildings.


[i] Kreimer v. Morristown, 958 F.2d 1242 (3d Cir., 1992).

[ii] Id. at 1264.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Armstrong v. D.C. Public Library, 154 F. Supp. 2d 67 (D.C. Cir. 2001).

[v] 17 AM. JUR. 2d Contempt §56 (updated to 2007).

In what sources of fresh water can you legally bathe or wash laundry? If waterways are polluted and you get sick from washing in them, does the law entitle you to anything? Can your bathing or washing laundry in rivers or lakes, etc… count as pollution?

**** 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. ****

You can usually expect that it is probably legal to bathe in naturally existing bodies of water such as lakes, creeks, rivers, and oceans which do not have to be entered through private property and do not have fences or signs declaring them to be off limits.

Use of these natural bodies of water is, however, subject to rules involving the land connected to them. If there is a lake in the middle of a city park that closes at 9:00 p.m., then using that lake for a bath after the park closed at 9:00 p.m. is also illegal. While laws regarding the use of public lands and waterways are often posted on signs, it is also possible that they are simply recorded in the law books, especially when they apply to an entire park system or collection of beaches.[i] 

Public fountains are not naturally existing bodies of water. They, and other man-made water-involving exhibits are usually created for the purpose of commemoration or beautification and the government has no obligation to allow people to use them for other purposes like washing. There do not have to be specifically written laws declaring that the public is only allowed to gaze upon the municipal reflecting pond or water display in order for misusing them to be illegal. The police have an array of general misconduct charges that can be legitimately applied against public behavior. See the posts about police and courts for more details about those. 

If waterways are polluted and you get sick from washing in them, does the law entitle you to anything? Can your bathing or washing laundry in rivers or lakes, etc… count as pollution?      

There is a federal law, called the Clean Water Act, which defines water pollution and explains exactly when it is illegal to discharge anything into waterways. Made by Congress, that law “is intended to protect the quality of lakes, streams, and other waters for recreational use, for maintenance of aquatic life, and for drinking water sources.”[iii] The federal Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental departments have regulations that detail how that federal law is to be carried out.[iv]     

The Clean Water Act makes it illegal for any person to put pollutants including solid waste, garbage, chemical waste, industrial waste, biological residue, etc…[v] into the waterways. Even though the law says “any person” can be guilty of a violation, the Clean Water Act is ordinarily used against businesses that dump or drain out dirty water and against local governments whose waste treatments plants aren’t sufficient to treat raw sewage or who fail to prevent excessive debris and biological overflowing when storms wash things into pubic waterways.      

This Act, and the various regulations that go with it, are all full of measurements because it simply isn’t possible to prevent every bit of pollution from going into public waterways. The laws detail under what circumstances particular quantities of various pollutants can go into waterways.      

The small amount of soap or grime that a person bathing or washing clothes might put into the water would be very far below the level of water contamination that would count as pollution, although it can be considered a violation of the local litter ordinance. Typical state and local litter laws have very broad declarations that dumping human waste, garbage, paper, detrimental substances, or other things into rivers or waterways is littering.[vi]     

Industries and waste treatment plants have to obtain permits to dump in waterways. To get a permit, it is necessary to identify one’s industry and the pollutants that are going to be discharged. The permit process is mainly a way of letting the government know that this company will be submitting regular reports to prove that they are cooperating with the pollution limits in the federal and state regulations.      

If a company or municipality allows more pollutants into a waterway than they are supposed to, they will be fined by the EPA or the state environmental agency and, if necessary, sued by the EPA. Private citizens and groups of citizens can also file lawsuits against companies or governments for violating the Clean Water Act,[vii] but because this law is intended to keep waterways clean, the remedy that comes from this kind of lawsuit emphasizes reducing pollution in the water source, not directly aiding individuals who have gotten sick from the water.

Nevertheless, violations of the Clean Water Act are important sources of proof in cases that are about injuries and sickness caused by polluted water. In other words, if a community of homeless people become sick from bathing in polluted water and the EPA or the state environmental agency has documented who caused the pollution, then the homeless people can use those documents as proof of how they got sick and who caused their sickness.     

Cases that emphasize the harm done to humans are grouped in a category called “personal injury law.” The formal legal term for this category is “torts.” Within torts are two general ways that people get injured: intentionally and by negligence. When people get sick or injured by water pollution, the lawsuit is filed on the basis of negligence.     

In order to succeed in a negligence case, it is necessary to prove that the defendant owed a duty to the injured plaintiff. The plaintiff also has to prove that the defendant breached that duty, that he (the plaintiff) is suffering harm, and that this harm has been caused by the defendant’s breach of his duty. The Clean Water Act and the federal EPA and state regulations that go with the Act all establish the duty that is owed in a negligence case about water pollution.[viii]      

A successful Clean Water Act lawsuit, which could have been brought by the EPA or an environmental group or anybody not necessarily the plaintiff in the negligence case, can serve as proof that the duty was breached. So, all that is left for the plaintiff in the negligence case to prove is the extent of his injuries or sickness and the connection between his problems and the polluted water.  

A book titled A Civil Action[ix] details the work involved in making a negligence case on behalf of leukemia victims against a company that polluted a local water source. That case was a class action lawsuit on behalf of several families which went through years of expensive preliminary court procedures. It depicts, with great pain, the work and costs involved in collecting evidence and simply trying to ascertain who was truly responsible for contaminating the water. There is also a related book titled A Documentary Companion to A Civil Action[x] which contains many of the actual court papers that were filed in the case. Both of those books would be helpful to somebody thinking about suing for injuries or sickness caused by water pollution.      There are also some law library reference books that have practical guidance for working on this kind of lawsuit. One of these, a set called “Am Jur Proof of Facts” has a very detailed article describing how to prepare a case about dioxin poisoning in a water source. It lists the evidence that should be presented, gives checklists of questions to ask experts, includes sample interrogatories identifying the documents to obtain, and generally conveys what information is necessary to prove and present a water pollution case.[xi] Another helpful article from that set is specifically about the role expert witnesses play in proving “toxic torts,” personal injuries caused by poisons and pollution. It has sample forms, clear explanations of how experts show that an accused defendant did or did not pollute water, and descriptions of the legal standards used to assess expert opinions.[xii]

[i] To find regulations, hours, and other information about lakes, ponds, and rivers under state control, look in the state’s park authority site http://www.statelocalgov.net/50states-parks.htm and the state’s environmental agency site http://www.epa.gov/epahome/state.htm. To find rules pertaining to a local body of water, locate the city ordinances using the Seattle Public Library’s list of municipal code publishers.  Link to each publisher until you find the municipality you need. http://www.spl.org/default.asp?pageID=collection_municodes[ii] The law is summarized and explained on the EPA’s Web site at http://www.epa.gov/region5/water/cwa.htm.

[iii] Joel M. Gross & Lynn Dodge, Clean Water Act 1 (Basic Practice Series) (2005).

[iv] Federal Environmental regulations are available at http://www.epa.gov/epahome/lawregs.htm.  State environmental regulations are available through state environmental agencies http://www.epa.gov/epahome/state.htm or in state administrative codes http://www.nass.org/acr/html/links.html.

[v] 33 U.S.C.S. §1362(6) (2007).

[vi] See, e.g., Denver, CO., Municipal Code § 2.39.29 (2007); Fla. Stat. § 29.403.413 (2007); 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 6501 (2007).  The Litterbutt Web site http://litterbutt.com/v2/Misc/LitterLawsByState.asp publishes state litter laws, but might not keep them up to date.  After reading a state’s law on that site, use the citation to look for the law in a current version of the state’s code to get the latest version.    State codes are at http://www.law.cornell.edu/statutes.html#state.

[vii] A prominent example of a Clean Water Act lawsuit brought by a group of citizens is Friends of the Earth Inc. et al. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc., 528 U.S. 167 (2000).

[viii] This is not the only way to establish that the water polluter owed a duty to the plaintiff or the public at large, but it is the strongest proof of an obligation to have kept the water cleaner. It is certainly possible for someone to have gotten sick or hurt from polluted water that was within EPA and state guidelines for cleanliness. In that kind of situation, the injured person can still establish that the polluter owed him some sort of duty: a duty to warn about what kinds of chemicals were going into the water, a duty to dump at a different time, or some other duty that becomes evident from the facts of the case.

[ix] Jonathan Harr, A Civil Action (Vintage Books) (1996).

[x] Lewis A. Grossman and Robert G. Vaughn, A Documentary Companion to A Civil Action: With Notes, Comments, and Questions (Revised Ed., Foundation Press) (2002).

[xi] Ray Vaughan, Liability for Dioxin Contamination, 25 Am. Jur. Proof of Facts 3d 473 (1994).

[xii] Ray Vaughan, Proof of Contamination in Toxic Tort Cases Through Expert Testimony, 39 Am. Jur. Proof of Facts 3d 539 (1996).

Under what circumstances might your conversations with police count as criminal confessions?

**** 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. ****

Any time someone voluntarily tells the police about his own involvement in an illegal act, it is a confession that can be used against him.[i] Telling police about tagging along with other people and watching while they committed a crime can be a confession to conspiracy. Casually talking to police can count as a confession even if the police are not asking questions about any particular crime. Admitting a crime to an officer in an undercover disguise can be a confession as well.

Notice that any of these examples could take place before or after being arrested and inside jail or out of police custody altogether. This is because the communications can be regarded as confessions whether or not police custody or arrest is involved.[ii] At least if they do take place while the confessor is under police control, there are some constitutional protections that might keep the confession from being used in a prosecution.

Almost everyone is familiar with the promise that police make on television, “you have the right to remain silent; anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney; if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” These promises are used in real life as well. They developed from the Supreme Court case of Miranda v. Arizona[iii] as ways of warning defendants of two constitutional rights: 1. the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate ones self[iv] and 2. The Sixth Amendment right to have assistance of counsel while defending ones self in a criminal case.[v]

Although they are stated as soon as anyone is arrested on TV, these rights have to be stated in real life only before an interrogation begins or before the police establish a situation which they know is “reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.”[vi] Since several decades before these warnings were required, the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment[vii] has been used to protect criminal defendants whose confessions were forced by torment, teasing, or lying; those confessions cannot be considered believable because of the way they were coerced.[viii] Confessions obtained through fair and proper (due) processes are believable.

Comforting though it may be to know that three constitutional amendments are available for analyzing confessions, criminal defendants cannot forget the timing of when these amendments are useful. First, they exist as protections before a defendant confesses. A defendant who is able to remember that he does not have to be a witness against himself, that a confession cannot be forced from him, and that he has a right to have a lawyer with him during police questioning can avoid confessing altogether.

The second time when these amendments are helpful is long after a confession has taken place. It is past when the police have stopped investigating and have turned the case over to the prosecutor, after the charges have been filed, and when the criminal trial is about to begin. It is then that the defendant’s attorney argues that information gleaned from a forced confession should not be used as evidence against the defendant.[ix] By then, the confession may have been reported in the news and influenced potential jurors. Even if it hasn’t made the news, an illegally obtained confession is inadmissible evidence.[x]


[i] Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291,300, 100 S.Ct. 1682, 1689 (1980); Hoffa v. U.S. 385 U.S. 293, 87 S.Ct. 408 (1966); Dickerson v. U.S., 530 U.S. 428, 120 S.Ct. 2326 (2000).

 

[ii] William E. Ringel, SEARCHES AND SEIZURES, ARRESTS AND CONFESSIONS, (West, 2007) Chapter 27 “‘Custodial Interrogation'” Requirement of Miranda.” See also Chapter 25 “Voluntariness of Confessions and Admissions.”

[iii] Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602 (1966).

[iv] U.S. Constitution Amendment V, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself…”

[v] U.S. Constitution Amendment VI, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

[vi] Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291, 292, 100 S.Ct. 1682, 1685 (1980).

[vii] U.S. CONST. Amend. XIV “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

[viii] Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278, 56 S.Ct. 461 (1936); Ashcraft. V. Tennessee, 322 U.S. 143, 64 S.Ct. 921 (1944).

[ix] A practical demonstration of how to make a case to keep a forced confession from being used as evidence is in 5 Am. Jur. Trials 331(1)(B), Excluding Illegally Obtained Evidence.(updated through February 2007). This source has sample questions to ask of witnesses, samples of documents to file in court, and demonstrations of how to prove various possible claims.

[x] Excluding forced confessions from evidence developed through a series of cases interpreting the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self incrimination. Here is a summary of that evolution http://supreme.lp.findlaw.com/constitution/amendment05/09.html.

Do you need an address to get access to government services such as Welfare, Food Stamps, Medicaid, and Social Security Disability?

**** 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. ****

Government agencies have to verify residency and citizenship when providing ongoing services to clients. They realize, however, that residency for the homeless is in places like lobbies, halfway houses, bus stations, churches, and other people’s houses.  When people have those kinds of non-permanent residences, the agencies have a variety of ways to confirm that somebody is who he claims to be and that he generally resides in the place he claims.

The Social Security Administration, which provides financial support for the elderly and disabled, has detailed policies in place for verifying an applicant’s identity.[i] Because that agency is one of the country’s official registrars of citizens,[ii] it has an enormous database of identifying facts about each person here. Using that database, the staff can ask applicants to state their social security number and then answer simple questions including date of birth and parents’ names to establish their identity without having to show an ID card with a street address.
When determining where an applicant can usually be located, Social Security staff are required to “assume that transient or homeless individuals need assistance in providing evidence of their living arrangements.”[iii] This means that the staff will make note of the shelters and other services and places where the applicant reports spending time and will rely on verifications from witnesses who regularly see the claimant at any of those places.

There is a specific provision of the Social Security Disability regulations asserting that people are still eligible for the benefits when they are in a homeless shelter.[iv]

Food stamps, Temporary Aid to Needy Families (a.k.a. “TANF” or “cash assistance”), and Medicaid are federally funded public assistance programs that are administered through state agencies rather than through federal branch offices located in those states. All of these are available to homeless people but, because they have state administration, do not follow exact federal identification rules the way the Social Security programs do. Instead, the public assistance or welfare office in each state makes its own rules about how claimants can prove that they are homeless and lack sufficient financial resources to pay for their own food,[v] healthcare, and other basic needs.[vi]

The United States Code has a basic standard for states to follow in establishing their public assistance eligibility requirements. “The State shall require…that each applicant for or recipient of benefits under that program furnish to the State his social security account number and the State shall utilize such account numbers so as to enable the association of the records pertaining to the applicant or recipient with his account number.”[vii] In other words, if someone does not have a street address, his social security number will be used as the fall-back I.D. validation.

Supplemental to that, the Department of Health and Human Services declares in its fact sheet about Medicaid prescription drug coverage for the homeless that “a Post Office Box, an address of a shelter or clinic, or the address where the individual receives mail (e.g. social security checks) may be considered the place of permanent residence.”[viii]

The United States Department of Agriculture, in its regulations about how states can verify the residency of food stamp applicants says that if a homeless person does not have documents showing that he is affiliated with a street address, “the State agency shall use a collateral contact or other readily available documentary evidence…Any documents or collateral contact which reasonably establish the applicant’s residency must be accepted and no requirement for a specific type of verification may be imposed. No durational residency requirement shall be established.”[ix]

The State offices tend to follow these guidelines with minor variations.

Sample laws:

In California, the residency regulation for food stamps says that the welfare department “shall not require an otherwise eligible household to reside in a permanent dwelling or have a fixed mailing address as a condition of eligibility”.[x] If a California applicant declares a shelter as his residence, the local food stamp office has to confirm that the shelter primarily houses people who are homeless, limits the amount of time that people can stay there, and does not have any kind of lease arrangements with people who stay there.[xi] If a California applicant is not affiliated with a shelter, the food stamp office will decide, after interviewing the applicant, what proof of residency to obtain.New York’s regulations merely declare that an application for food stamps will be accepted even if it only has the applicant’s name and signature and no other information, not even an address. Those regulations do not tell how the department will confirm that an applicant is truly homeless.

In Illinois, only one application is needed when requesting cash assistance, medical assistance, and/or food stamps and that application simply asks “Are you homeless? Yes / No”.[xii] The Illinois Administrative Code explains that homeless people applying for assistance through the Department of Human Services can use a friend or relative’s address or the address of a social service agency or the closest DHS office.[xiii]

To find a state’s food stamp address requirement, look in the state health and human services department’s regulations.  Here is a link to a site that lists administrative codes https://www.llsdc.org/state-legislation. Look in the administrative code’s index under “food stamps” or else look to see if there is an entire section or volume of health and human services regulations. Another way to find these regulations is navigating through the state health and human services department’s Web site. http://www.acf.hhs.gov/

Since an address is not merely used for benefit applications, but is also necessary for ongoing correspondence between clients and government agencies, the agencies might recommend that homeless clients identify a caseworker or social service agency as their contact person or “authorized representative.”[xiv] That way, there will be a consistent place where mail can be sent and where the homeless client knows to check-in. Someone who does not want to deal with an agency can use an address service instead. Here is a post about address services.

Serving as the authorized representative is often a basic job duty of someone who works in a shelter.[xv] Another possibility is that applicants can designate someone to serve as a “representative payee” to receive and deposit checks and generally manage their funds. That relationship clearly involves more than simply providing an address, but that is because it is available to claimants, not on the basis of homelessness, but because they cannot or don’t want to manage money.

A Pennsylvania case cautions about deciding which street address to list when applying for government services. The plaintiff in this case, who later became homeless, had applied for unemployment benefits at an address far away from where he now spent most of his time. He was not allowed to pick-up his benefits check at the office closest to his real location and was instead required to make the long, expensive, time consuming trek to the office near the original address.[xvi] There may be more efficient ways to change an address with a government agency now, and more understanding of the difficulties that homeless people have in documenting their actual whereabouts, but the caution is still worth noting.


[i] Social Security Administration, Program Operations Manual System (POMS)- Section SI 00601.062. The POMS is available online at http://www.ssa.gov/regulations/. See also the Fact Sheet on Supplemental Security Income available from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty http://www.nlchp.org/content/pubs/Fact%20Sheet%20on%20SSI%2020011.pdf

[ii] See the background note at the beginning of the Social Security Administration POMS- Section RM 00203-001. “Over time, the SSN has increasingly been used as a multi-purpose identifier by government, business, and other organizations.”

[iii] Social Security Administration, POMS – Section SI 00835.060

[iv] 20 CFR §416.201. Note that this regulation is part of a broader rule stating that people in the care of institutions are not eligible for the benefits. Since homeless shelters do not provide care, they are exempted from that rule.

[v] U.S. Dep’t. of Agriculture, eligibility for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.  http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/eligibility  How to apply in each state: http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/apply

[vi] U.S.Dep’t of Health and Human Services, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/programs/tanf/about  Here is the link to the States’ programs: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/help

[vii] 42 USC §1320b-7(1)

[viii] U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, What Do I Need to Know to About Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage to Help My Homeless Clients?, http://www.cms.hhs.gov/HomelessnessInitiative/Downloads/HomelessFactSheet.pdf

[ix] 7 CFR Ch.II §273.2

[x] California Dep’t of Social Services Food Stamp Regulations 63-401.5

[xi] California Dep’t of Social Services Information Notice # 1-04-04. Available at http://www.dss.cahwnet.gov/getinfo/acin04/pdf/I-04_04.pdf

[xii] Application available at http://www.dhs.state.il.us/page.aspx?item=33698

[xiii] Ill. Adm. Code tit. 89 §10.210 (2006).

[xiv]U.S. Dep’t of Agriculture, An Introduction to the Food Stamp Program, http://www.cms.hhs.gov/apps/firststep/content/foodtips.html ; Wash. Admin. Code 388-408-0050 and 388-460-0005 available at http://apps.leg.wa.gov/wac/

[xv] See, New Hampshire’s homeless resources list http://www.nhhealthykids.com/homeless-resources and the Massachusetts Legal Help list of SNAP facts about ways for homeless people to access food stamps. http://www.masslegalhelp.org/income-benefits/fshomelessness

[xvi] Regoli v. Commw Unemployment Bd. Rev. Unemployment Comp. Bd. Rev., 427 A.2d 1275 (Pa. Commw. Ct., 1981).

Is anyone else allowed to open and read your mail before you do?

**** 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. ****

It is a federal crime to intercept mail. Opening and reading someone else’s mail is a crime above and beyond that.[i] Even though most federal crimes are investigated by the FBI, those relating to mail are handled by the postal inspection service. The crimes are identified in Title 18 of the U.S. Code Chapter 83

That section, titled “Obstruction of mails generally,” states that anyone who “knowingly and willfully obstructs or retards the passage of the mail” will be fined and/or imprisoned for up to six months. Section 1702 says that taking mail out of a mail box or from a mail carrier, “before it has been delivered to the person to whom it was directed, with design to obstruct correspondence, or to pry into the business or secrets of another, or opens, secretes, embezzles, or destroys the same, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”
These sound like clear crimes, but they become convoluted if someone is having mail delivered to another person’s address and the address holder feels some degree of responsibility to watch for checks or important messages. If there has been some agreement between a homeless person and an address holder giving the address holder permission to open and preview mail, then there probably won’t be anybody filing a complaint to the postal inspector alleging that the mail has been obstructed.
The person with the right to file that kind of complaint would be the person named in the mail. This is an example of when it can be very helpful to have a written agreement identifying responsibilities and expectations. In fact, an address holder would be wise to get written permission if a homeless friend has asked that mail be opened. That way, if there is ever a legal complaint that he was obstructing correspondence or prying into secrets, the address holder can prove that he was not opening the mail for those reasons, he was opening it to only satisfy the request of the homeless person.
The federal law against “theft or receipt of stolen mail matter generally” supports the right of homeless people to get their mail even if they have arranged to have it sent to an address where they don’t live and they have authorized someone to open it and see what’s inside.  That law, in Title 18 Section 1708 forbids taking or trying to take mail or even one item contained within a mailed package or envelope. An address holder with written permission to open mail who does open the mail, but then uses something in that mail for his own benefit or simply doesn’t hand it over, has committed a federal crime.
If any of these obstruction or theft of mail crimes seems to have occurred, there are two ways that a victim can file a complaint with the Postal Inspection Service: 1. by making a report in person at any post office, which will involve completing a form and then being available for the postal inspector’s follow-up investigation or 2. by completing the complaint form available on the home page of the Postal Inspection Service.


[i] http://assembler.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode18/usc_sup_01_18_10_I_20_83.html

What are the legal requirements for getting an address? If trailers have addresses, can you get one for another parked vehicle?

**** 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. ****

In the United States, all land is presumed to belong to the government unless an individual or entity holds title to it. So, a person cannot simply settle comfortably on some land, or park a vehicle there, and try to get an address for it. Getting a home address begins with the government’s making the land available for private residence. Then a real estate developer, or whoever has bought the land from the government, gets the first title to it and records his title at the deeds office, usually a component of the county government.  If you need to find out who owns a piece of land, you are allowed to search for the deed because it is a public record held at the deeds office.

Title is legal ownership of land. A deed is the document showing that someone has title to a piece of land. The deeds office identifies pieces of land by giving them block and lot numbers, known as the legal address. When the landowner applies for local permits to build structures on that land, a street address (the address used by the postal service) is assigned to it. If a landowner opts to make a trailer park on his land, then his building permit will establish street addresses for the separate spaces in the trailer park.

Look for more information about real estate law at Nolo.com and Justia.

If the police come looking for you, does a shelter have to turn you over to them?

**** 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. ****

A place of shelter is not a place of asylum from the law. On the other hand, it is also not a place where the homeless should feel at risk of being rounded-up by the police. Unless someone commits a crime in a shelter or the police come to the shelter looking for a particular person, shelter staff have no legal obligation to identify residents to police.

If the police come to question a resident as a potential witness or perpetrator, someone who prevents the officers from having access to that resident can be charged with obstruction of justice or obstruction of process.[i]

There is a whole spectrum of interactions that might occur between shelter staff and police who come looking for a resident.  At one end of the spectrum are the police with a warrant to search or seize.  They might be there to seize a person or evidence.  If they come to seize a person, the warrant is an arrest warrant.

As explained elsewhere in this blog, judges issue search and seizure warrants when police and prosecutors have given them probable cause to believe that evidence of a particular crime is located in the place to be searched.[ii] When the shelter-police interaction is at this end of the spectrum, the shelter has no choice but to comply with the police. Staff who interfere with the officers’ carrying out the warrant are blatantly obstructing justice.  They might be handcuffed and immediately arrested so they can’t continue to impede the police work.

At the other end of the spectrum is a scene in which police have heard a vague complaint about a minor offense and come to the shelter asking the staff to present all of the male residents ages twenty to forty who have blue jeans. Here the police have not conveyed that a crime has occurred or that they even know who they are looking for.  They are putting the staff in the dubious position of disrupting multiple innocent residents who came into the shelter only seeking a safe indoor place to rest.

At that point, the police might be causing the serious interference-interference with the fundamental purpose of the shelter.  The shelter staff have to do their jobs and provide the residents with a place to rest.  It would probably not be an obstruction of justice if they asked the police for more information so that fewer residents were interrupted or if they encouraged the police to come back and look for their suspect outside the building the next morning when the residents left for the day.

In between these two poles of the spectrum are numerous possibilities. Maybe a victim or a witness saw an attacker run into the shelter.  Maybe the police have been following a shelter resident as part of a major investigation.  Maybe the homeless have been crime targets and the police want to get to know them and help them avoid being victims.  The decision about whether to charge shelter staff with obstruction will depend on the police officers’ assessment of the public safety risk involved if they are hindered from getting to a shelter resident, i.e. it depends on police discretion.[iii]

There are other potential criminal charges, aside from obstruction crimes, that shelter staff can face for not identifying residents to the police. They might, for example, be harboring a fugitive. Getting between the police and a shelter resident they’ve come to arrest could be harboring a fugitive.[iv] Even when counselors at a shelter have confidential knowledge of residents’ crimes, it does not mean that those counselors can hide those clients when the police come looking for them.  They might be able to avoid disclosing clients’ counseling records for evidence, but they cannot keep the police away from those clients.[v]

Shelter staff can also have criminal liability for not identifying a resident when they know the resident is repeatedly committing a crime.  The first time a shelter worker sees a resident stealing from other residents or dealing drugs in the shelter, he has a basic citizen’s obligation to report the crime to the police.  If he doesn’t report the crime that first time, he’s not likely to be charged with a crime himself. (Although he should serve as a witness for the prosecution since he saw the illegal act.)

After the first time however, accomplice or conspiracy charges might be brought against the shelter worker who knows about a pattern of criminal behavior in the shelter but doesn’t report it to the police.  Basically, an accomplice is someone who “gave assistance or encouragement or failed to perform a legal duty to prevent”[vi] a crime.   A conspirator joins with others “for the purpose of committing…some unlawful or criminal act.”[vii]


[i] Obstruction of justice or process is defined and examined in 67 C.J.S. Obstructing Justice § 24 (2002). In the federal system, the statute against obstruction of justice/process is published in 18 USC §§ 1501-20 (2007). If local or state police are obstructed in their efforts, the state’s version of an obstruction of justice charge would apply. Find these by using the following terms in the index to the state statutes: obstruction of justice, police, interference with arrest, interference with process, and crimes.

[ii] Robert M. Bloom, Searches, Seizures, and Warrants (Praeger 2003). This book tells about every aspect of law that applies to warrants for searches and seizures.

[iii] To learn more about police discretion, See American Bar Association, Standards Relating to the Urban Police Function 1-43 (1972 & Supp. 1973). (These standards were developed by a joint committee of ABA members and members of the International Association of Chiefs of Police). Also, search in the National Criminal Justice Resource Center for the phrase “police discretion” to get links to full-text articles, reports, and book chapters on the topic. http://www.ncjrs.gov/index.html

[iv] 39 Am. Jur. 2d Harboring Criminals § 3 (2006).

[v] A related but much more extreme legal obligation arises when a mental health professional knows that a client seeks to hurt someone. When that happens, the mental health professional is allowed to divulge confidential client information to police, but only to the extent necessary to protect the client’s intended victim. To read more about this and see a comparison of state laws, see John C. Williams, Liability of One Treating Mentally Afflicted Patient For Failure to Warn or Protect Third Persons Threatened by Patient, 83 A.L.R. 3d 1201.

[vi] Black’s Law Dictionary, 6th Ed. 17 (1990).

[vii] Id. at 309.

Are shelters legally obligated to maintain a certain standard of cleanliness?

**** 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. ****

Shelters, along with any other facilities that house groups of people, are subject to public health regulations regarding sanitation, rodent control, and safety just as they are subject to fire safety codes and zoning ordinances. But because so many different types of places offer various levels of sheltering and state and county health regulations vary, there is not an established standard guaranteeing that sheets are washed every day or that floors are always swept or that other measures of cleanliness are assured in every shelter.

A shelter resident who becomes sick or injured because of conditions in the shelter might be able to sue the shelter for negligence, depending on the situation. It could be the premises liability type of negligence if the sickness or injury was predictable.  An example of predictable sickness might be when a shelter with heavy dust and mold causes an asthmatic resident to have a serious asthma attack.

If the sickness or injury has nothing to do with the condition of the building, but it happens in the shelter, failing to help a resident in need might count as negligence. Ordinarily, people in the U.S. have no duty to rescue somebody.[i] But innkeepers, businesses, and other places open to the public do have to help people who become sick or ill while there.[ii] Since the law imposes that duty, breaching it to the extent that harm comes to a resident would be negligence.

There are other reasons that the homeless might sue for healthier shelter conditions.

Consider some examples from New York City:  In the mid 1990’s there was a line of New York City cases about homeless people who were temporarily housed in the Emergency Assistance offices where they went to apply for space in shelters.[iii] While it would seem that at least sleeping in an office would be better than sleeping outside, the Court of Appeals of New York declared that “The consequences of the City’s practices include families sleeping on the chairs and on the floor, washing in the sinks of public restrooms, and suffering self-evidently unsanitary and unsafe traumas.”[iv]

There was also a group of homeless people with HIV-related illness who sued the city seeking access to shelters better-suited to their health needs.[v] The city had a Comprehensive Care Program that equipped some shelters to particularly care for homeless AIDS patients. These plaintiffs with HIV-related illness had some health accommodations in the shelters, but were not entitled to shelter conditions comparable to those available to AIDS patients.  A lower court had found that housing twelve to a room constituted a tuberculosis risk for people with HIV-related illness.[vi] The appeal concluded that plans for health and hygiene in shelters were within the authority of health and housing agencies not the courts.

Shelters tend not to have special accommodations for every specific health need. Diabetics cannot expect that a shelter will have meals that are suitable for their diets and ready supplies of insulin. Asthmatics cannot expect that a shelter will take extreme measures to reduce its dust and mold to assure that they can breathe.

The Centers for Disease Control maintains a list of state and local health departments.[vii] Reading a local health department’s rules and program descriptions is the most direct way to learn what public health services are available to the homeless. There may be drop-in clinics, day programs, special facilities for certain health and hygiene functions, etc… and these may be outside of shelters or on-site at shelters.

The National Health Care for the Homeless Council provides a free online manual titled “Shelter Health: Essentials of Care for People Living in Shelter.”[viii] This manual is not a legal document and does not legally obligate shelters to do anything. It is intended as a source of information for providers of group housing. It tells shelters how to keep the facility as hygienic as possible and provides clues about how to recognize health problems so that shelter staff can make helpful referrals for clients to get appropriate medical care. The manual is full of details like sample policies about laundry, hand washing, lice control, and cleaning body fluids from floors, furniture, and bathrooms. Homeless people or their advocates seeking to improve the local legal standards for shelters could use the manual to get examples of the improvements that should be made.


[i] Restatement (Third) of Torts § 37 (Proposed Final Draft No. 1 2005). 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 90 (2006). To find cases making this point, look in West Digests (indexes to cases) using the topic “negligence” and the key numbers 214 and 282.

[ii] Restatement (Second) of Torts § 314A (1965 & Supp. 2006). 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence §§ 90-91 (2006). The case of Baker v. Fenneman & Brown Properties, L.L.C., 793 N.E.2d 1203 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003) shows that business owners and innkeepers and others who have special relationships with sick and injured visitors to their establishments do have a duty to get those victims medical care.

[iii] McCain v. Dinkins, 639 N.E.2d 1132 (N.Y. 1994). This case culminated the series of cases about temporarily housing people in the Emergency Assistance Unit offices. It summarizes the cases leading up to it.

[iv] Id. at 1136.

[v] Mixon v. Grinker, 669 N.E.2d 819 (N.Y. 1996).

[vi] Id. at 820.

[vii] List of state and local health departments http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/international/relres.html. If this Web address changes, go to http://www.cdc.gov/ and use its search box to find the most recent list.

[viii] The shelter health manual is at http://www.nhchc.org/resources/clinical/tools-and-support/shelter-health/.

When you sleep in an airport or at a train or bus station are you in a public place or privately owned place and what legal rights or responsibilities do you have when resting there?

**** 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. ****

Transportation stations are usually under the control of government authorities and, as such, are considered public places. The possession posts, the bathing posts and the food posts  all apply in public transportation stations. Like parks and government office buildings, they can have limited access. They might be closed to non-ticket holders after a certain hour. They might allow sleeping only in designated passenger areas. And, as in any other public places, the local loitering or vagrancy laws apply there.[i]

.
Being public in nature, if not in fact,[ii] (because sometimes they are owned by a bus or train company) their restrooms, lighting, chairs, vending machines, and other amenities are generally available to anyone who might come in. In privately owned stations, economic reasons like the high expense of having staff and procedures to remove people and the loss of prospective future business are behind this access; it just isn’t worth the money to try and keep out non-passengers. But having seating and restrooms for non-passengers and cleaning up after them cost money too. When people make excessive use of the amenities without using the facility for its intended service, it becomes economically necessary to have the police do vagrancy arrests.

Despite the various legal forms of exclusion, homeless people are visible and numerous in transportation stations. Service providers and the police look for them there. In fact, the Code of Federal Regulations requires Veterans Administration outreach workers to look for needy homeless veterans in bus and train stations.[iii] Searching for veterans, they reach out to every homeless person they encounter. This uninvited, though potentially helpful, attention raises a question about homeless people’s legal rights in transportation centers: whether they have to accept help or even listen to helpful offers.
There is certainly no law providing for peace and quiet when a person sits down to rest or lies down to sleep in a transportation station. There is, however, a crime of “disturbing the peace” which groups of homeless might invoke if they felt imposed-upon by do-gooders.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines disturbing the peace as, “[i]nterruption of the peace, quiet and good order of a neighborhood or community, particularly by unnecessary and distracting noises.”[iv] Each locality has its own ordinance defining breach of the peace or disturbing the peace. Any citizens whose peace is breached can ask police to charge the perpetrator. People do that when the neighbor’s dog barks too much. Why couldn’t people trying to rest in bus stations try it, at least when they are directly and intentionally interrupted by people demanding their attention?

.
Aside from trying that revolutionary tactic for warding off social services, it is also possible to simply say, “go away” or “no thank you.” The law does not require people to hear or read messages that they do not want to get. We know this from the logic of First Amendment free speech cases. When civil rights lawyers argue that someone has a right to say something, they assert that listeners have equal free speech rights to respond to, criticize, or ignore the message. A famous court opinion about the Nazi party’s right to wear swastikas and demonstrate in a U.S. Jewish community concluded with this declaration: “direct the citizens of Skokie that it is their burden to avoid the offensive symbol.”[v]


[i] People v. Guilbert, 472 N.Y.S.2d 90 (N.Y. Crim. Ct. 1983); People v. Goodwin. 519 N.Y.S.2d 189 (N.Y. Crim. Term 1987).

[ii] The Supreme Court explained why and how a privately owned train station has certain obligations as a public place in Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S.454 (1960). That case was brought by an African American man who was refused service at a restaurant in a Trailways bus terminal. The Supreme Court held that “When a bus carrier has volunteered to make terminal and restaurant facilities and services available to its interstate passengers as a regular part of their transportation, and the terminal and restaurant have acquiesced and cooperated in this undertaking, the terminal and restaurant must perform these services without discriminations prohibited by the [Interstate Commerce] Act.” Id. at 454.

[iii] 38 C.F.R. § 61.81 (2007).  http://www.ecfr.gov 

[iv] Black’s Law Dictionary 477 (6th ed. 1990).

[v] Skokie v. National Socialist Party, 373 N.E.2d 21, 26 (Ill. App. Ct. 1978).

If a place seems abandoned are you legally obligated to get permission to be there? If you are only trying to stay warm and dry one time, is it illegal to go onto private property for shelter?

**** 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. ****

Going onto somebody’s property without permission is trespassing, one of the distinct actions that is a civil wrong as well as a crime. It only has to happen once to be illegal.

As a civil offense, trespass is negligently or intentionally entering someone else’s property or even having your possessions on somebody else’s property without permission.[i] Homeless people are not likely to be sued in civil court for trespass because all that the property owner could get from the suit would be money, which homeless people generally do not have, and maybe a court order saying that the trespasser is not allowed to go on the property again.

The only practical use for the civil court order would be to present it as proof in a criminal case of defiant trespass which is trespass made worse because the trespasser ignored a “do not enter” warning.[ii] Since that warning could just be a sign or a fence or a simple statement from the property owner, rather than a court order, there really is no reason for anyone to bring a civil trespass claim against a homeless person.

Regular criminal trespass, as opposed to the kind that defies a warning, can be charged when someone merely “enters or surreptitiously remains in any building or occupied structure”[iii] without permission. Both of the criminal forms of trespass can result in punishment to the trespasser, at least the punishment of eviction. Still, there are usually defenses for every crime.

In trespass crimes, unlike so many others, there is a defense that is favorable to the homeless: when a privately owned building has been abandoned, the Model Penal Code says that being in it without permission is not trespassing.[iv] On the other hand, not every state’s trespassing law includes this abandoned building exception.

RESEARCH TIP:
To defend a trespassing charge on the grounds that the building was deserted or abandoned, it is necessary to look at similar cases in the state where the charge was brought. Those cases will demonstrate important legal requirements such as how long an owner has to have been absent for a place to be considered abandoned in that state. They will also identify any clues that should have informed an intruder whether or not the place was abandoned. Summaries of cases are published in case digest (i.e. indexes to cases) published by West Publishing, the primary publisher of U.S. case law. Cases about trespassing in abandoned building are listed under “key 79” within the topic of Trespass.

The exception almost never applies to government-owned buildings.[v] Additionally, governments have an arsenal of reasons, beyond trespass, to keep people out of their buildings. They can use their condemned building codes or their health or fire codes. There’s always a criminal mischief or loitering charge that can apply to people who won’t follow police orders to leave a place. There might even be a specific statute or ordinance declaring it illegal to occupy a city, county, or state owned empty building.

Some case examples show how homeless squatters and municipalities have used the legal system to dispute the squatters’ occupation of abandoned buildings. In New York, the city evicted a group of homeless people who had not only occupied an unused and decrepit city building for nearly six months, but had actually improved the building and made it usable by installing new plumbing and electrical systems all by themselves. The court upheld the eviction noting that the plumbing and electrical work were not necessarily up to code and declaring that the squatters simply had no legal right to occupy those premises.[vi]

In the town of Brookhaven Long Island, homeless squatters in a building complex responded to an immediate forced eviction by asserting that their due process[vii] and fair housing[viii] rights had been violated. The due process claim was that they were entitled to notice and a hearing before being evicted. The fair housing claim was that they were unfairly targeted because of being Latino. The federal court held that since the squatters did not have a legal right to be on the property, they were not entitled to due process. However, since the evictions truly did target only Latinos who would suffer irreparable injury by being put out, the squatters were allowed to pursue their fair housing claim.[ix]

There’s a charming historical case out of Boston in which the city ordered a squatter to vacate one of its buildings. When he wouldn’t leave, the city ordered him to pay rent. He refused to pay the rent, so the city took him to court. The court found that since the squatter’s occupancy was illegal, he wasn’t obligated to pay any rent.[x]


[i] 87 CJS “Trespass”.

[ii] Model Penal Code §221.2(2) (1962), defiant trespass happens when “knowing that he is not licensed or privileged to do so, [someone] enters or remains in any place as to which notice against trespass is given by: (a) actual communication to the actor; or (b) posting in a manner prescribed by law or reasonably likely to come to the attention of intruders; or (c) fencing or other enclosure manifestly designed to exclude intruders.”

[iii] Model Penal Code §221.2(1) (1962).

[iv] Model Penal Code §221.2(3) (1962), “It is an affirmative defense to prosecution under this section that a building …was not occupied.”

[v] Mary K. Cunningham et al., De Facto Shelters: Homeless Living in Vacant Public Housing Units, (Urban Institute 2005). This is a research study about homeless squatters in Chicago and serves as a good example of how public authorities deal with people living in abandoned public buildings. Available at http://www.urban.org/uploadedPDF/411144_defacto_shelters.pdf.

[vi] Paulino v. Wright, 620 N.Y.S.2d. 363 (N.Y. App. Div. 1994).

[vii] U.S. Const. amend. XIV.

[viii] 42 U.S.C. §3601 et seq. (2007). “The Fair Housing Act” and the “Fair Housing Amendments Act” are combined in this part of the United States Code.

[ix] Valdez v. Brookhaven 05-CV-4323 (E.D.N.Y. 2005) also at 2005 WL 3454708.

[x] O’Brien v. Ball, 119 Mass. 28 (Mass. 1875).

Do you have a right to sleep in public?

**** 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. ****

Public safety is one of the paramount obligations of city governments. Police and fire assistance, garbage pick-up, sewer authority, street repair, and numerous other city services function to assure safety.[i] People who walk public streets, ride public transportation, patronize public buildings, and sleep in public places are all legally entitled to public safety.

As was described in the blog post about having sleep disrupted while staying as a guest in someone else’s place, both criminal laws and civil laws punish people whose actions aggravate, annoy, or attack another person. The criminal law system punishes with fines payable to the state, probation, community service, and jail time-depending on the crime. The civil law system punishes people by making them pay money to their victims. See the posts about dealing with police and the courts for more information about making these different kinds of court cases.

In both criminal and civil law, actions like annoyance and aggravation constitute harassment. Physical attacks are classified in the category of assault crimes. In any state the assault category might include such divisions as simple assault, assault and battery, assault with a deadly weapon, or sexual assault.

Sometimes homeless victims don’t access the criminal system after attacks because they don’t expect help. A victim’s location does not affect the right to have an attacker charged with harassment or assault. It also does not alter the potency of those charges. In other words, the police cannot say, “well too bad he got attacked; he was asking for it by sleeping outside.” Police do not make those kinds of location-based judgments about domestic violence victims who remain at home with someone violent or about road rage victims who continue driving when someone else on the road is being aggressive; they cannot make them about homeless people.

Even the attacker’s defense attorney usually cannot use the victim’s homelessness as some sort of excuse for the attack. To imply that because someone is homeless he might be mentally ill, or asking for trouble, or somehow morally inferior would be an illegal use of victim character evidence in the criminal trial against the attacker. The Federal Rules of Evidence, which apply in federal court cases and which serve as a model for state evidence rules, rarely allow a victim’s character to be invoked in a case.[ii] If a lawyer did try to use those kinds of claims against a homeless victim, or even a homeless attacker[iii] or witness,[iv] the judge would forbid them from being presented.

When there is a pattern of crime in an area populated by homeless folks, there are several ways to reduce the likelihood of being victimized:
1. Stay away from that area
2. Get the police to regularly patrol the area
3. Establish an internal patrol system by which you and the others who stay there take turns keeping watch
4. Have a threat response system, a plan for how you’ll react to help yourself or someone else and
5. Enlist homeless advocacy organizations to help draw public and government attention to an outbreak of crimes against the homeless.

Even if no methods of self-protection are implemented, continuing to stay in a vulnerable place would not reduce a homeless person’s ability to have an attacker arrested and prosecuted. The Police Officers’ Code of Ethics assures that, “the fundamental duties of a police officer include serving the community; safeguarding lives and property; protecting the innocent; keeping the peace; and ensuring the rights of all to liberty, equality and justice.”[v] If police officers do not respond to distress calls or do not help to protect victims by investigating crimes and arresting attackers, then the victims and the public need to file ethics complaints with the police department. See the post asking “What if the police are rough with you” for information about reporting and fighting police misconduct.


[i] 2 McQuillin on Municipal Corporations §9.05 (1988).

[ii] Fed. R. Evid. 404 says, “Evidence of a person’s character or a trait of character is not admissible…except: (2) …a character trait of peacefulness of the victim offered by the prosecution in a homicide case to rebut evidence that the victim was the first aggressor.” Rule 412 tells about the limited circumstances when the sexual history of a sex crime victim can be used as evidence in the case against the attacker. The Federal Rules of Evidence are available for free in several places on the Internet including the Cornell Legal Information Institute http://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/fre/. State evidence rules are available within each state’s listings on another part of the Cornell site http://www.law.cornell.edu/states/listing.html.

[iii] Fed. R. Evid. 404, 405, 406.

[iv] Fed. R. Evid. 404, 608, 609.

[v] International Association of Chiefs of Police, Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, “Primary Duties of a Police Officer,” available at http://www.theiacp.org/documents/index.cfm?fuseaction=document&document_id=94 See also the next section of that code about “Performance of the Duties of a Police Officer” which says, “A police officer shall perform all duties impartially, without favor or affection or ill will and without regard to status, sex, race, religion, political belief or aspiration. All citizens will be treated equally with courtesy, consideration and dignity.” See http://www.theiacp.org/.  Individual police departments have their own codes of ethics with similar promises of quality service.

Introduction to the Homeless Law Blog

Every day, throughout the day, the homeless have to worry about the law.  Being without a home is not in itself illegal, but the routines and behavior that go with it often are.  Sleeping and grooming in public might also be trespassing, open lewdness, nuisance, loitering, or vagrancy.  Rummaging for food might be theft.  Just walking into a business might offend or frighten people enough that the police are called to remove a homeless patron.  Once arrested, the homeless often do not have proof of identification and cannot afford attorneys.

Even more than the risk of being arrested, the homeless have to concern themselves with when and how the law will protect them. They are victims of attack, unpaid day workers, parties to contracts… citizens with a panoply of needs.  Perhaps they are hassled or have had their possessions taken or damaged.  Maybe they are given spoiled food.  They may want to ask for help from the police or government agencies, but requests are met with demands for personal information.  People who don’t have addresses may be afraid of bad results if they don’t have an answer for every line on a form.

People with these kinds of vulnerability are clearly in need of information.  If they know their rights, they understand what to ask for.  If they can describe a problem in the language of legal and societal institutions, they might get better help.  If they realize how the law relates to them, they feel justified in their claims and validated as humans. Unable to pay for lawyers, the homeless often go to the internet for information.  That is why this blog is here, to help homeless people figure out how to do legal research that will enable them to figure out answers to their legal questions.  Click on one of the categories on the side to see the homeless law research questions.

What is “squatting”? Is there such a thing as “squatter’s rights”?

**** 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. ****

“Squatting” is an old casual word for occupying a place that legally belongs to someone else when that owner hasn’t given permission for the occupation. “Squatter’s rights” is an assertion that someone is entitled to own land after he’s been squatting there. Although “squatter’s rights” is an old concept, it is certainly not casual. The legal name for squatter’s rights is “adverse possession.”

To see the research process for getting actual title to the property, see this post.

The doctrine of adverse possession is a venerable legal standard by which a possessor of land can become the owner of that land without buying it.  Generally, it is only possible to get control of privately-owned land by adverse possession; government property like abandoned public housing units, plots of land in alleys, empty schools, and other government-owned land and buildings cannot be taken-over by individuals.[i]  If the property is owned by individuals, a non-government organization, or a private business, there are several things that a land possessor has to accomplish and prove in order to become the legal owner.  Until all of these things are accomplished, the possessor, i.e., the squatter, is considered an illegal trespasser.

The possessor first has to possess the land in a way that is open. It can’t be hidden or secret; he can’t just put his own subtle markers around the perimeter and later claim that those markers denoted his possession.  The test that courts apply to decide whether possession has been “open” is to ask whether the possession is so visible that “a reasonably prudent owner in the exercise of ordinary care would have discovered that someone was asserting a claim to the property adverse to his.”[ii]     

Next, in order to qualify for adverse possession, the possession must be continuous.  If the possessor only spends the one day a month there or goes there just to pick apples sometimes, it isn’t continuous.[iii]  If the owner has the possessor jailed for trespassing, the possession is also not continuous because the time spent in jail breaks the continuation of time that the possessor expected to spend on the land.  For how long does this continuous possession have to go on before title is granted?  That is determined differently in each state.  Generally, it ranges between five and twenty-one years.[iv] 

Third, the possession must be exclusive.  This means that the possessor and the owner are not sharing the property.  It does not necessarily mean that the possessor has to be the only one on the property.[v]  Multiple possessors could eventually become co-owners if they share the property in the same way for the same amount of time.

Consider the example of a homeless person who consistently stays on a particular piece of land.  Maybe there are other people, homeless or not, who join him by staying on the land for weeks or months.  The owner, however, almost never occupies the land during the years that this homeless person occupies it.  This homeless person will have satisfied the legal requirement that his possession of the land was exclusive.

If the story is changed slightly so that two homeless people, not members of the same family, occupy the property together for the legal number of years needed for adverse possession, they both get to claim exclusive possession.  Even though neither one was alone on the property, those two people together controlled the property exclusively, without the owner’s involvement.

Fourth, the possession must be adverse.  This means that it truly has to be without the owner’s permission.  Sometimes, court cases use the word “hostile” to show that the possessor’s use of the property is against the owner’s interests.  This criterion doesn’t require that the possessor be mean to the owner, it only requires that his reason for using the property is contrary to the owner’s right to have his land left alone.[vi]  

When there are multiple owners and one of them has given someone permission to be on the property, the possession is no longer considered adverse and the possessor cannot hope to gain ownership of the property under the doctrine of adverse possession.  Permission does not always come in the form of a clear statement like, “sure, it’s okay with me if you stay here.”  It may be that the owner knows that the possessor is there, but does not interfere with the possession.[vii] 

In sum, it is possible for squatters to get a legal claim to the property where they squat, but only if it is done openly in a clear obvious way, if the squatting lasts for the number of years required in that state, if the squatter had pretty much exclusive possession of the property for all of those years, and if the squatting was definitely against the owner’s interests in the property.  To see the research process for getting actual title to the property, see this post.

RESEARCH TIP: To find the adverse possession laws in your state, try one of these strategies:
1. Look in a West case Digest for your state or region using the topic “Adverse Possession” and Key Number 13. 2. Look in the volume of your state’s statutory code covering “property.” If there isn’t a volume or major section on that topic, look for “adverse possession” in the alphabetical index to the code. It might be listed under “A” or it might be listed as a sub-topic within “property” or “real property” or “real estate.” Try navigating through the online version of your state code.  3. Look in a library catalog for a general book about property law in your state.

[i] R.P. Davis, Acquisition by Adverse Possession or Use of Public Property Held By Municipal Corporation or Other Governmental Unit Otherwise Than for Streets, Alleys, Parks, or Common, 55 A.L.R. 2d. 554 (1957 & 2006). To read about adverse possession of streets and alleys, see 11 McQuillin on Municipal Corporations §30.179 (1991 & Supp. 2006).

[ii] John F. Major, Acquisition of Title to Property by Adverse Possession, 39 Am. Jur. Proof of Facts 2d 261, §8 (2006).

[iii] “Acts which are consistent with sporadic trespass are insufficient to apprise a reasonably diligent owner of any adverse claim” Pierz v. Gorski, 276 N.W. 2d 352, 355 (Wis. Ct. App. 1979); “An annual entry upon another man’s lands, to cut timber, to feed cattle, to hunt or fish, can never give title, and the cultivation of a truck-patch during the summer as incidental to the other pursuits, does not redeem such entries from the character of occasional trespasses.” Wheeler v. Winn, 53 Pa. 122, 131 (Pa. 1866); “(1) mowing and maintaining the property each and every summer; (2) storing their lake equipment on the property each and every winter; and (3) allowing their children and grandchildren to play on the property… [are] best described as occasional and sporadic, failing to satisfy the elements of adverse possession.” Standard v. Urban, 453 N.W.2d. 733, 735 (Minn. Ct. App. 1990).

[iv] Examples: District of Columbia – 15 years, D.C. Code § 16-1113 (LexisNexis 2006); Florida – 7 years, Fl. Stat. Ann. § 95.16 (West 2006); Minnesota – 15 years, Minn. Stat. Ann. § 541.02 (West 2005); Nevada – 5 years, Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 11.070, 11.110, 11.150 (West 2006); Ohio – 21 years, Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2305.04 (LexisNexis 2006); Washington – 7 years, Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 7.28.050 (LexisNexis 2007).

[v] Bryant v. Palmer Coking Coal Co., 936 P.2d 1163 (Wash. Ct. App. 1997); Roche v. Town of Fairfield, 442 A.2d 911 (Conn. 1982).

[vi] Griffin v. Brian Dev., 938 So.2d 337 (Miss. Ct. App. 2006); Schuler v. Oldervik, 143 P.2d 1197 (Colo. Ct. App. 2006); Wood v. Bell, 902 A.2d 843 (Me. 2006).

[vii] Jonathan M. Purver, 2 C.J.S. Adverse Possession § 80 (2003).

Can property owners interrupt your sleep or otherwise make you uncomfortable simply because you are not paying rent?

**** 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. ****

 

The law does not allow anyone to be tormented in exchange for the simple opportunity to sleep indoors.

Although this is a problem that can be efficiently resolved by leaving the place, the question deserves legal analysis.  If someone were invited to stay in a place and then got berated or hassled or physically bothered by the host, he could legitimately ask the police to charge that host with criminal harassment.

The Model Penal Code declares that harassment is a petty misdemeanor that happens when someone: “insults, taunts or challenges another in a manner likely to provoke violent or disorderly response; …makes repeated communications anonymously or at extremely inconvenient hours, or in offensively coarse language; or… subjects another to an offensive touching; or … engages in any other course of alarming conduct serving no legitimate purpose of the actor.”[i] 

         
State crimes codes elaborate on the Model Penal Code’s definition. In New Jersey, harassment includes behavior that “subjects another to striking, kicking, shoving, or other offensive touching, or threatens to do so…or any other course of alarming conduct or of repeatedly committed acts with purpose to alarm or seriously annoy such other person.” [ii]  In Connecticut, harassing behavior is included in the crime of disorderly conduct when someone “by offensive or disorderly conduct, annoys or interferes with another person”. [iii]  
In Maryland, harassment occurs when someone, “maliciously engage[s] in a course of conduct that alarms or seriously annoys the other…with the intent to harass, alarm, or annoy the other; after receiving a reasonable warning or request to stop by or on behalf of the other; and without a legal purpose.” [iv] In New Mexico, “Harassment consists of knowingly pursuing a pattern of conduct that is intended to annoy, seriously alarm or terrorize another person and that serves no lawful purpose. The conduct must be such that it would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress.” [v] 
These are just a few representative examples to show that generally bothersome behavior truly can be punishable by law. The states follow the Model Penal Code’s classification of harassment as a minor crime, likely to result in a fine or community service, but not jail time.   
If the taunting or annoying behavior makes the victim afraid of getting hurt, both the crime and the punishment for it would become more serious. Then, the crime would be assault [vi] and the punishment could involve jail time. Examples of the kind of harassment that might count as assault could include showing a weapon or raising fists, making verbal threats, having a group of people collectively mock the homeless visitor, and using a menacing tone to demand that the homeless visitor do something. 
Victims of harassment or assault are not limited to the criminal justice system for help. They can sue their tormentors for money damages in civil court. The claims might include assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, or harassment. See the posts about court for more details about making a civil case.
 


[i]Model Penal Code §250.4 (1962).

[ii] N.J. Stat. Ann. §2C:33-4 (West 2007).

[iii] Conn. Gen. Stat. §53a-182(2) (2006).

[iv] Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law §3-803(a) (West 2006).

[v] N.M. Stat. Ann. §30-3A-2(a) (LexisNexis 2007).

[vi] Model Penal Code §211.1(1)(c) (1962), defines simple assault to include: “attempts by physical menace to put another in fear of imminent serious bodily injury.”

Do you have a legal right to live in habitable conditions if you are on someone’s property with permission?

**** 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. ****

In group housing facilities, such as shelters and apartment buildings, there is a legally enforceable expectation of habitability. That legal obligation is connected to local and county health department ordinances and the law about leases. If a landlord violates the health code by having a water heater that leaks carbon monoxide, for example, the health department can declare that water heater unusable. But that does not give the resident anything more than a lack of hot water.      
The resident’s legal rights come in a warranty– the implied warranty of habitability. This implied warranty is identified in the statutes of some states and in the caselaw of other states.[i]    

 
The point of the warranty is that a rent-paying tenant is entitled to get a livable facility in exchange for his money. When the landlord does not maintain the building’s basic systems: plumbing, heating, electricity and other things that are under the landlord’s control such as infestations of hallways and other common areas, then the law says that the tenant is not getting what he is supposed to get out of the lease.    

  
A visitor does not have a lease agreement with a property owner. Even though the earlier part of this chapter showed that the relationship between a homeless visitor and a homeowner could be interpreted according to contract law, it also demonstrated that unlike an ongoing lease type of contract, the arrangement between someone staying thanks to the owner’s courtesy, possibly in exchange for some chores, is not a contractual right to prolonged housing. The owner’s motivation in allowing someone to stay at his place as a favor is basically a charitable one. The owner’s motivation in renting spaces to tenants, by way of leases, is the standard business motivation-to make money.       

Having to satisfy all of the codes– fire codes, health codes, tax codes, electrical codes[ii] is a legal responsibility that comes with being in the business of providing housing. Shelters are in the non-profit business of housing people which is why they have to follow the codes.      

Homeowners who do not rent out space do not necessarily keep their places in top condition. They may have learned to live with a faulty toilet or a failing furnace or flickering lights. They may not even live at the place where they agree to allow a homeless person to stay. Whether or not they live there, they have not established a contractual obligation to maintain the property in a particular condition if they have not entered into a lease with the visitor or they do not have standard legal obligations connected with being in the business of renting property. 

     
A homeless person living in a place without paying for it can get out of the sickening, dangerous, or injurious conditions of the building by simply leaving; it is not as if he is walking away from money that was paid in a down payment or rent. Being able to simply walk away without violating a deal or owing anything is even more proof that he does not have an enforceable contract for habitable living conditions. There are certainly many variations on the relationship between property owner and homeless visitor that can create a contractual obligation of habitability, but generally the obligation will not arise.     

There is, however, another possible legal avenue by which a homeless visitor might be able to take action against unsafe or unhealthy housing conditions if he has suffered harm from those conditions. This alternative legal claim would be negligence. Property owners have long been legally responsible for preventing visitors from being injured or sickened on their property. This area of negligence is specifically known as “premises liability.”     
The law of premises liability comes from cases more than statutes or regulations, and it varies according to the history of cases in every state. Basically, it means that when someone is injured on another person’s property as a result of the property owner’s failure to repair or warn about a danger on the property, the owner has to pay damages to the injured person.    

  
Warnings are not always a legal way of avoiding responsibility for someone’s injury on property. Nobody can get away with saying, “it’s not my fault he got burned in a fire; I told him the wiring was old.” On the other hand, sometimes just warning visitors against the danger can satisfy the owner’s legal duty. Everyone has seen electrified fences with signs that say “high voltage.” The fence owner with such signs would probably not ordinarily be liable for electrocuting someone who ignored those signs and touched the fence.    
In some places, trespassers do not have a legal right to sue for injuries caused by dangerous property. In those jurisdictions, courts have decided that property owners cannot be expected to protect people who go on property without their knowledge or at least without permission. Property owners definitely cannot purposely cause something to harm trespassers.[iii] And, in most places, a property owner who knows his property well enough to be able to predict that something about it could cause sickness or injuries, (examples: broken sink could cut someone, bad water heater could lead to scalding, faulty furnace could cause carbon monoxide poisoning…) has a duty to prevent those problems from hurting people who are allowed there as well as trespassers.[iv]   

   
Negligence has been defined elsewhere in this blog. Here is how it applies to a premises liability problem: Think about a homeless person living in someone’s basement. The house’s main sewer pipe is under the floor of this basement. Every time there’s a heavy rain, the basement becomes flooded with sewage. The homeowner knows about this sewage flooding, but doesn’t know exactly what’s wrong with the sewage pipe. The homeless person develops a terrible bacterial infection from living in the basement that has repeatedly had these floods.     
Since the owner knew that there had repeatedly been raw sewage in his basement and everyone knows that raw sewage can be sickening, he had a duty to prevent the homeless visitor from getting sick from it. He breached that duty by either not cleaning his basement or not preventing new flooding. Since he breached his duty and harm was caused as a result of that breach, he can be found negligent. Being guilty of negligence will make him liable for the sick visitor’s medical expenses. He might also be ordered to pay punitive damages. In other words, the court might say that he has to additional money to the visitor as a way of being further punished for causing that visitor to get sick.


[i] Richard. A. Lord, Williston on Contracts §48:11 (4th ed. 1990 & Supp. 2006).

[ii] These health and safety codes are usually published in the county or local ordinances. In Justia, http://www.justia.com/us-states/ click on your state’s name and then, within the state resources page, look for the link to “city websites and city codes.”

[iii] The famous case conveying this legal prohibition involved a property owner who set-up a spring-loaded gun that would shoot as soon as someone opened the door to bedroom in his old farm house. He arranged the gun that way because trespassers had been entering his old farm house, while he was at his main house, and stealing things from it. He expected that the gun would serve to punish the next trespasser and deter any others who might have come. Katko v. Briney, 183 N.W. 2d. 657 (Iowa 1971). Similar cases involving spring guns had been on the books for years, often as criminal cases against the property owners. See, Homicide-Death of Trespasser by Spring Gun in Unoccupied House, 31 Yale L.J. 562 (1922).

[iv] To see a thorough comparison of relevant cases from throughout the country, go to Vitauts M. Gulbis, Modern Status of Rules Conditioning Landowner’s Liability Upon Status of Injured Party as Invitee, Licensee, or Trespasser, 22 A.L.R 4th 294 (1983 & Supp. 2006).

Can property owners make you leave whenever they want to?

**** 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. ****

 

Depending on the agreement between the homeowner and the homeless visitor and the way they have mutually come to their expectations and behaviors regarding the living space, the homeowner will usually have legal justification for abruptly ending a housing relationship with a non-paying tenant.[i]

The word “usually” appears here, because of that huge range of possibilities about their expectations and behaviors. It is certainly possible for a court to find that an actual landlord-tenant relationship has formed between a homeowner and a homeless visitor in which case the homeless visitor would be entitled to formal eviction proceedings.[ii]     

Even when a visitor has fully upheld his promises and the homeowner has not asked for additional obligations from the visitor, a homeowner can legally modify the contract by saying that as of a particular day, and it can be the same day because no statutes provide extra time for guests to be warned, he will no longer house the homeless person. In other words, he will not uphold his end of the bargain anymore. He is freeing the homeless person from his obligations. Not only that, he is informing the homeless person that even if he does honor his obligations, the homeowner will no longer honor his.

Once the homeowner has told him to leave, a homeless person will not succeed in a court case declaring that the homeowner breached the contract by not allowing him to stay through the winter even though he kept shoveling the snow. He will not be able to force the homeowner to continue housing him.  A court would likely find that as of the point that the homeowner decided to no longer provide housing, the visitor no longer had any obligation to shovel the snow.

In other words, shoveling snow no longer had the effect of being part of the housing deal. If the homeless person continued to do it without the homeowner’s promise to continue providing housing then the homeless person was simply doing the homeowner a favor, not ensuring that he would continue to get his housing.


[i]Jackson v. U.S. 357 A.2d 409 (D.C. 1976) (a girlfriend’s right to throw out her boyfriend was upheld by a court); Young v. D.C.752 A.2d 138 (D.C. 2000) (a property owner was allowed to have his son’s homeless unemployed friend ousted from an apartment even though he made token payments in exchange for the opportunity to stay there).

[ii]DeLay v. Douglas 164 S.W.2d 154 (Mo. Ct. App. 1942) (a tenant farmer who planted and tended wheat and barley crops in a year when he had no lease was entitled to keep half of the crop just as he had in the years when there was a lease between him and the landowner); Valdez v. Brookhaven 05-CV-4323 (E.D.N.Y. 2005) (though a lease was found not to exist, the court did analyze due process rights connected with eviction.)