Weekly Law Resume - September 27, 2012: Ninth Circuit Recognizes Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment Protections for Unabandoned but Unattended Personal Possessions of Homeless Individuals

by Low, Ball & Lynch

[author: Kimberly Y. Chin]

Tony Lavan, et. al. v. City of Los Angeles
United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (September 5, 2012)

On September 5, 2012, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in Lavan, et. al. v. Los Angeles. The Court held that homeless individuals had a possessory interest in their unabandoned personal possessions and thus, the City’s seizure and immediate destruction of those possessions violated these individuals’ Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures as well as their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.

In Lavan, the City of Los Angeles seized and immediately destroyed the personal possessions of eight homeless individuals living in the “Skid Row” neighborhood of Los Angeles. The property was temporarily left on the sidewalks while the individuals performed necessary tasks, such as going to the restroom, eating, showering, or attending court. These individuals sued the City and obtained an injunction from the trial court barring the City from (1) seizing property in Skid Row absent an objectively reasonable belief that it is abandoned, that it presents an immediate threat to public health or safety, or that it is evidence of a crime or contraband; and (2) destroying the seized property without maintaining it in a secure location for a period of less than 90 days. The City challenged the issuance of the injunction.

The Ninth Circuit, in evaluating the injunction, held that the unabandoned property of homeless persons “is not beyond the reach of the protections enshrined in the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.” First, the Court found that the City had engaged in an unreasonable seizure because the homeless persons had a possessory interest in their unabandoned personal possessions and the City’s actions “meaningfully interfered” with that possessory interest. As such, the City violated the homeless individuals’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure. Second, the Ninth Circuit held that the possessions were “property” and were not abandoned by the individuals. Consequently, these individuals had a protected interest in their property. Thus, the City had to provide notice and an opportunity to be heard before taking and destroying the possessions. The City’s failure to comply with the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause violated these individuals’ due process rights.


The Lavan decision is instructive for municipalities addressing the issue of urban homelessness. Municipalities should ensure that any possessions of homeless individuals that are seized are actually abandoned. To the extent that seized possessions are not abandoned but merely unattended, municipalities should provide notice to the individual that their property has been seized and provide an opportunity for the individual to reclaim the seized property.

For a copy of the complete decision see:


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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