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It Turns Out the Skid Row Homeless Have 4th Amendment Rights Too….and More

September 6th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


Okay, yes, of course, it’s complicated—as most things are. But ever since the city—with the LAPD as its agent—began working to clean up Skid Row, a long list of homeless have complained that when they left their belongings for a short period to, say, take a shower (or make other uses of bathroom facilities) and similar necessary errands, that they would return to find that all of their stuff had vanished.

The trashed stashes often included crucial medication, family momentos and other items that you and I would be unhappy to lose. For a homeless person, who has next to nothing, the loss becomes more fundamental.

With this in mind, seven Skid Row residents brought suit against the city of LA.

The AP’s Christina Hoag reports on this week’s judicial response. Here’s a clip:

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision that found the city’s confiscation of homeless people’s bundles violated their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure.

One of the three judges dissented, agreeing with the city that unattended personal property can be seized in the public interest of health and safety.

Chief Deputy City Attorney William Carter said the office would evaluate whether to continue the appeal by requesting a review by the full appellate court, but noted the city is complying with an injunction issued by U.S. District Court Judge Philip Gutierrez in June 2011.

Under that ruling, the city must store items taken from sidewalks for up to 90 days and leave a notice directing property owners to the storage site so they can retrieve them. The city is permitted to discard hazardous items and trash.

Here’s the slightly more technical report from Tim Hull of the Courthouse News Service:

The “most basic reading” of the Constitution prohibits Los Angeles from unreasonably seizing and destroying the personal property of homeless residents, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.
Nine homeless residents of Skid Row sued the city for violations of their Fourth and 14th Amendment rights after police confiscated the property they left on the sidewalk. They say their legal papers, family pictures and other possessions were immediately destroyed.
Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles is home to one of the nation’s largest homeless populations. The men and women who dwell there say they left their property unattended but not abandoned while eating, showering or using the bathroom.
U.S. District Judge Philip Gutierrez issued a narrow injunction barring the practice in cases where the items did not pose a public hazard. A divided panel of the federal appeals court in Pasadena affirmed Wednesday.
Los Angeles had claimed that the Fourth Amendment does not protect the property in question since there can be no expectation of privacy for those who leave personal belongings unattended on a public sidewalk.
“The city has … asked us to declare that the unattended property of homeless persons is uniquely beyond the reach of the Constitution, so that the government may seize and destroy with impunity the worldly possessions of a vulnerable group in our society,” Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for the panel majority. “Because even the most basic reading of our Constitution prohibits such a result, the city’s appeal is denied.”


Last week we drew your attention to an excellent New Yorker story by Sarah Stillman, about the use of young confidential informants by law enforcement and how some of them had gotten killed as a result of their cooperation with the cops, who did not appear to adequately protect them. However the story was hidden behind a pay wall so, unless you suscribe to the New Yorker, you couldn’t read the full story.

Neal Conan talks to Stillman and others about the story and the issue in Wednesday’s Face the Nation. It’s long and good, and makes for very interesting listening. Here’s a clip from the transcript:

...I spoke to, you know, the family of one of the convicted murderers, who told me that essentially they’d never been planning a drug deal in the first place. What they were actually planning was to take the massive – I believe it was $13,000 that Rachel was bringing to the bust, because, you know, it was quite huge.

It was, you know, 1,500 ecstasy pills and cocaine and a handgun that she was sent to purchase.

CONAN: And they found the wire on her?

STILLMAN: Exactly. They opened up her purse, because the wire had actually been placed in her purse, which was against, you know, standard procedures there, but it had all been done in a bit of haste, and she’d been sent off with the wires in her purse. And, you know, it’s a bit unclear exactly what occurred because, you know, no one was there to witness it, but the understanding was that they took her purse and found the wire, and she was shot.

CONAN: And the police, how did they lose track of her? There was aircraft involved.

STILLMAN: Exactly. Well, it was a series of really – you know, a series of both poor planning and coincidence. You know, one big issue was that it was in a very wooded area. The location was changed a number of times, and the DEA had offered a surveillance plane. But it turned out the drug deal went down in a location that was covered in this tree canopy.

I mean, I saw it. It was thick and dripping with Spanish moss and not the kind of place that a plane had any hope of seeing the transaction.

CONAN: Your piece in The New Yorker is titled “The Throwaways,” and it’s your contention that in fact in their eagerness to get drug busts, the police do not pay anywhere near enough attention to the safety of their informants, and to some degree, in some cases, their attitudes may be pretty cavalier….


As you can see, the posting is a little light today. This has much to do with the fact that, yesterday evening, I found myself stuck for hours in the San Jose airport due to a cancelled flight followed by the full evacuation of the airport’s large, new terminal B.

It seems that someone spotted smoke in an elevator shaft at the far end of the terminal.

The good news was that, in fairly short order, the firefighters determined the smoke was caused by overheating hydraulic fluid, and ably handled the situation. The bad news was that well after the supposed fire threat was over, for reasons that the San Jose police airport officials insisted on evacuating everyone—which looked like a couple thousand of us—and then turning us right around and running us, in a preposterously time consuming fashion, back through the TSA check. A pile up of grounded flights resulted, creating a scheduling snarl for air traffic controllers and so on.

Thus, as I said, posting will be a little light.

(I was in Santa Clara County looking at two remarkable programs for kids who break the law to help them get on the right track, both run by Santa Clara’s juvenile programs. You’ll be hearing more about these and other programs around the state in the coming months.)

Posted in Homelessness, How Appealing, LAPD, Life in general | 6 Comments »

6 Responses

  1. 10-33_Go Says:

    Surely the transients could be cited/arrested for possession of stolen property (to wit, the shopping carts). Beyond 496 PC, there is probably a Los Angeles muni code that covers it.

    Or, better yet, perhaps we can charge the transients property tax for the space they’re taking up and then place liens on their “property” when they don’t pay up.

    Point is, they can’t have it both ways. The transients and their enablers have essentially claimed large swathes of public and private property as theirs, yet they do not have have (and, indeed, shirk) the responsibilities for care that real public and private property owners have.

    Whatever the resolution–the current situation of these Bedouin encampments on public, urine and feces-strewn sidewalks, is unacceptable.

  2. sucks Says:

    lol at WitnessLA’s choice of picture to make a statement with. 496 was one of the first things that came to my mind too. Not everyone in skid row is an innocent victim or a person in legitimate need of help.

  3. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Hmmm. Um, er, good point. Perhaps another photo (that doesn’t feature stolen property) would have been more…..prudent.

  4. sucks Says:

    Just busting your chops a little Ma’am. :)

  5. Fifty-six Says:

    Most of the shopping carts downtown are owned by a homeless service provider. 496 doesn’t apply, if only it was that simple.

  6. sucks Says:

    Interesting to know, thanks.

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