The Constitution on Skid Row
September 8, 2012
Skid Row in Los Angeles, which has one of the highest concentrations of homeless people in the country, has been the site of extended legal battles over the rights of individuals to live on the streets and the power of the government to impose order.
In the latest clash, the city seized identification papers, family photographs and other personal belongings of homeless people, when they left their things momentarily as they stepped away to eat, shower, use a bathroom or tend to some other need. City employees took the property away to destroy it, sometimes after owners had returned and pleaded to get their possessions back.
Lawyers for the homeless sued, charging that this seizing of property violated due process rights and guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures under the Constitution. In 2011, a Federal District Court judge enjoined the city from seizing property there unless it was abandoned, contraband, evidence of a crime or an immediate threat to public health or safety, and from destroying it unless it posed a threat.
In a welcome 2-to-1 ruling last week, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld that order, rejecting the contention that “the unattended property of homeless persons is uniquely beyond the reach of the Constitution.”
The court found that the Fourth Amendment’s protection of possessions and the 14th Amendment’s due-process guarantee prohibited this kind of confiscation of personal property by government, regardless of the homelessness of the owner.
The city’s sole argument on appeal was that homeless people should have had no expectation of privacy because their belongings were on a public sidewalk. And because those things were out in the open, the government had no duty to provide due process before taking them.
The panel wisely dismissed that view. The district court determined that the homeless have a reasonable expectation that the places where they put their belongings are private. The appeals court said it need not resolve that issue because the Fourth Amendment protects against seizures of property, with or without a shield of privacy.
The Ninth Circuit has repeatedly said the “government may not take property like a thief in the night; rather, it must announce its intentions and give the property owner a chance to argue against the taking.”
Los Angeles shamelessly inflicted a merciless seize-and-destroy policy on the most vulnerable population, and insisted that it could do so with impunity. But as the appeals court said in no uncertain terms, “Even the most basic reading of our Constitution prohibits such a result.”