Court Prohibits Los Angeles City from Summarily Destroying Homeless Individuals’ “Bulky” Items

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Ninth Circuit Affirms Lower Court’s Preliminary Injunction

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decisions in Martin v. City of Boise and Lavan v. City of Los Angeles significantly altered how municipalities can regulate public camping and related activities. As a recap, in Martin the court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of criminal penalties on unsheltered homeless persons for sitting, sleeping or lying outside on public property. Subject to some exceptions, Martin prohibits jurisdictions from enforcing camping ordinances when the number of homeless individuals in a jurisdiction exceeds the number of available shelter beds.

Lavan concerned enforcement of a City of Los Angeles ordinance that prohibited leaving merchandise, baggage or “any article of personal property” on parkways or sidewalks. The plaintiffs (a group of homeless individuals) alleged, among other things, that the city violated their Fourth Amendment rights by summarily seizing and destroying their “momentarily unattended” personal property—which included personal identification documents, family memorabilia, portable electronics, blankets and shelters. The court rejected the city’s argument that the Fourth Amendment allowed the seizure and destruction of the plaintiffs’ property (characterizing that argument as an “invitation to impose [an] unprecedented limit on the Fourth Amendment’s guarantees”). Instead, the court held that the city’s seizure and immediate destruction of the plaintiffs’ un-abandoned property was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

Garcia v. City of Los Angeles is the latest development in this area. In this case, the Ninth Circuit determined that municipalities may not summarily seize and destroy even “bulky” items of personal property left on city property.

The “Bulky” Items Controversy
To set the stage, the Los Angeles Municipal Code (like many other cities’ codes) includes regulations governing the storage of personal property in public areas. At issue in Garcia was a subset of such regulations relating to “bulky items.” Subject to limited exceptions, the bulky items provision authorized city personnel to, without notice, remove and immediately destroy any attended or unattended bulky items stored on property owned, managed or maintained by the city (e.g., roads, sidewalks and median strips). The LAMC defined bulky items as “any item, with the exception of a constructed tent, operational walker, crutch or wheelchair, that is too large to fit into a 60-gallon container with the lid closed, including but not limited to, a shed, structure, mattress, couch, chair, other furniture or appliance.”

A group of homeless individuals filed a lawsuit alleging that the bulky items provision on its face violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of procedural due process. The district court agreed, concluding that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on their Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment claims. The court issued a preliminary injunction on the city’s enforcement of the bulky items provision. The city appealed.

The Ninth Circuit’s analysis began and ended with Lavan. The court observed that the facts of Lavan were “strikingly similar” to the facts now before the court: i.e., in both cases, city employees acting pursuant to a city ordinance “seized and summarily destroyed” homeless individuals’ property that was momentarily unattended. The court concluded that it saw “no meaningful distinction” between the destruction of property enjoined in Lavan and the destruction of property under the bulky items provision. The fact that the plaintiffs’ property in this case was larger than 60 gallons did “not reduce their possessory interests in those items.” As such, the court concluded that the plaintiffs had demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their Fourth Amendment claim and affirmed the district court’s grant of a preliminary injunction.

Takeaways from Garcia v. City of Los Angeles
Takeaways from Garcia v. City of Los Angeles include the following:

  • Size is irrelevant. Municipalities may not summarily remove and destroy homeless individuals’ personal property that is stored in public. The mere size or volume of personal property does not change the result.
  • Not addressed: property removal with notice and storage. The court did not rule on the constitutionality of ordinances that provide for the removal, notice and storage of personal property. Variations of such regulations have been crafted and/or upheld by district courts. (see e.g., Mitchell v. City of Los Angles (C.D. Cal. 2016) 2016 WL 11519288, citing with approval De-Occupy Honolulu v. City and County of Honolulu (D. Hawaii 2013) 2013 WL 2285100).
  • Truly abandoned is another story. The court emphasized that its decision applied to “un-abandoned” personal property. Garcia does not limit or restrict municipalities’ ability to remove and dispose of abandoned personal property.
  • We’re not done yet. The issues addressed in Garcia will almost certainly be faced by future courts. Courts will likely be called on to further harmonize the constitutional rights of homeless individuals with actions taken by municipalities to further legitimate local interests (e.g., decreasing fire risks, protecting safe passage on public rights-of-way and protecting critical infrastructure).

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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