Constitutional Law

9th Circuit Says Los Angeles Can't Treat Personal Belongings of Homeless Individuals Like Trash

Upholding a federal court’s injunction that prevented the city of Los Angeles from treating as trash the personal belongings that homeless individuals left unattended for a short time, a federal appeals court Wednesday said government workers could seize their property only if it is has clearly been abandoned, poses an immediate health or safety threat or is needed as criminal evidence.

“Were it otherwise, the government could seize and destroy any illegally parked car or unlawfully unattended dog,” wrote Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals majority in the 2-1 decision (PDF). The San Francisco-based appeals court held that the Fourth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution prohibit such property seizures regardless of the purported authority provided by a Los Angeles city ordinance.

And even when the government can lawfully seize the property of homeless persons, it can’t simply throw it away, the majority ruled. Unless the property poses an immediate health or safety issue, it must be held for 90 days, and those to whom it belongs must be notified where they can retrieve it.

Chief Deputy City Attorney William Carter said Los Angeles will consider whether to seek en banc review by the 9th Circuit and notes that the city has been complying with a June 2011 federal district court order that protects personal belongings of the homeless, the Associated Press reports.

A post on the Los Angeles Times’ L.A. Now blog provides additional details.

Related coverage:

Los Angeles Times (sub. req.): “Dealing with possessions of homeless a big problem for cities”

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