Post details: City's destruction of property of homeless persons in trying to rid itself of them violates Fourth Amendment


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City's destruction of property of homeless persons in trying to rid itself of them violates Fourth Amendment

"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets ...."
— Anatole France, "The Red Lilly," 1894

In a civil case filed by the homeless persons of the City of Fresno by the ACLU, the E.D. Cal. held after a four day hearing that they were entitled to an injunction against the city's gathering up all their property and destroying it. Kincaid v. City of Fresno, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93464 (E.D. Cal. December 8, 2006):

C. Likelihood Of Success On The Merits Unlawful Seizure.

6. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects against unreasonable seizures and searches. Menotti v. City of Seattle, 409 F.3d 1113, 1152 (9th Cir. 2005). Similarly, Article I, Section 13 of the California Constitution provides in part that "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable seizures and searches may not be violated ....," a provision that provides at least as much protection as does the Fourth Amendment. See People v. Brisendine, 13 Cal.3d 528, 548-52 (1975), abrogated on other grounds as discussed in In re Lance W., 37 Cal.3d 873, 879 (1985).

7. A seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes occurs when there is some meaningful interference with an individual's possessory interest in property. Soldal v. Cook County, Ill., 506 U.S. 56, 63 (1992). An officer who comes across an individual's property in a public area may seize it only if Fourth Amendment standards are satisfied--for example, if the items are evidence of a crime or are contraband. Id. at 68.

8. As the Ninth Circuit recently further explained:

Reasonableness is the touchstone of any seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Thus, to comply with the Fourth Amendment, the seizure ... must have been reasonable under the circumstances. We look to the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the destruction of property was reasonably necessary to effectuate the performance of the law enforcement officer's duties. A seizure becomes unlawful when it is "more intrusive than necessary." To determine whether the [given seizure] was reasonable, we balance the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.

San Jose Charter of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club v. City of San Jose, 402 F.3d 962, 975 (9th Cir. 2005).

9. The City's policy and practice in dealing with the homeless, as implemented, effects seizures of homeless individuals' property. The interference with Plaintiffs' possessory interests is more than just "meaningful;" it is total and irrevocable, since the City seizes and then immediately destroys all of the property that it seizes in its sweeps. Id. at 975 ("[t]he destruction of property by State officials poses as much of a threat, if not more, to people's right to be 'secure in their effects' as does the physical taking of them.").

10. Such seizures, which result in the irrevocable destruction of homeless persons' property, are also "more intrusive than necessary" and therefore unlawful. Id. The City conducts its seizures in a highly intrusive manner, by immediately destroying the property and thus permanently depriving the homeless owners of their property. The City makes no effort to separate and or store for later retrieval items that are clearly owned and are valuable, not trash. Rather, the City's policy is to immediately seize and destroy all property in the area of the sweeps, without regard to the nature or value of the property.

11. The City's sweeps are not confined to seizure and destruction of property that is evidence of a crime or contraband, or that presents immediate threats to public health or safety. Even when homeless people inform City workers that they have been granted permission to keep their belongings where they are, the City seizes and destroys the property regardless. This policy and practice of seizure and destruction without just cause violates the Fourth Amendment and the concomitant protections against unlawful seizure found in the California Constitution.

12. The City has attempted to justify its policies and practices by its rule that the property of the homeless that it seizes and destroys is "abandoned" and is therefore "trash." The City's "rule," developed by Specialist Wallace and adopted by the City Police Department Sanitation Department, and City Manager, is that if a homeless person is not literally beside his or her property laying claim to it during a sweep, then the City deems that property to be abandoned, making the property "trash," which is then destroyed. There is no legal justification for this rule which is demeaning as it places no value on the homeless' property and is not honest because the "rule" purports to transmogrify obviously valuable property into trash.

13. In California, as under the common law, an item is the property of its owner unless the owner intentionally and voluntarily abandons it because "she simply no longer desires to possess the thing being abandoned." 1 Cal.Jur.3d Lost and Escheated Property, Sec. 2; See Katsaris v. United States, 684 F.2d 758, 761-62 (11th Cir. 1982). Here, the evidence demonstrates that Plaintiffs did not intend to abandon their tents, carts, clothing, bicycles, personal effects, memorabilia, and other property that they need to survive, and no reasonable official could believe this to be the case. Nor can the City treat property as abandoned and trash just because the owner has not removed it in the time the government has allotted. A & W Smelter and Refiners, Inc. v. Clinton, 146 F.3d 1107, 1111 (9th Cir. 1998).

14. The City's purported desire for clean and safe streets does not make its conduct lawful. Protection of the public does not require the wholesale seizure and immediate destruction of all Plaintiffs' possessions and in any event "is outweighed by the more immediate interests of the plaintiffs in not having their personal belongings destroyed." Pottinger v. City of Miami, 810 F.Supp. 1551, 1573 (S.D. Fla. 1992).

15. The City's seizure of homeless people's personal property without probable cause and the immediate and permanent destruction of such property without a method to reclaim or to assert the owner's right, title, and interest to recover such personal property violates the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Art. I, § 13 of the California Constitution.

Rule 41 did not govern a state search where the federal participation prior to warrant execution was minimal and not for the benefit of the federal government. United States v. Slater, 209 Fed. Appx. 489 (6th Cir. 2006) (unpublished) (argued as plain error):

We have held that "[w]hile it is important not to stifle cooperation between federal and state officers, we think it clear that federal officers, investigating a federal crime, must comply with the federal rules governing their conduct." Searp, 586 F.2d at 1121. However, "[m]ere federal involvement is not enough; there must be significant involvement prior to the search." United States v. Hunter, 4 F. App'x 295, 301 (6th Cir. Feb. 9, 2001); see also Searp, 586 F.2d at 1119-21. In Searp, for example, the investigation was a "joint undertaking between the Kentucky police and the FBI from the beginning," they initiated the investigation together, an FBI agent swore out the affidavit supporting the search warrant in question, there were five FBI agents present at the search, and a federal officer directed the search. Searp, 586 F.2d at 1121. On the other hand, in cases where only a single federal agent consulted on an investigation, did not participate in the process of obtaining a search warrant, and a decision to pursue federal charges was not made prior to the search, we have held that the requirements of Rule 41 do not govern the search. See, e.g., United States v. Alcorn, 9 F. App'x 426, 431 (6th Cir. May 16, 2001); Hunter, 4 F. App'x at 301.

The only evidence Slater presents that federal officers were substantially involved in the investigation is the testimony of ATF Agent Malone at the detention hearing held pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3142(f)(2). Slater's main evidence is that when asked on cross-examination: "When did the case officially come from [sic] a state case into a federal case?", Malone replied: "When I was contacted by the special investigations unit that they had learned through informants that Mr. Slater was distributing significant quantities of narcotics." JA 125. Neither the question nor Malone's reply demonstrates that all parties involved, both state officers and federal agents, considered that the investigation had become a federal investigation and stopped being a state investigation, nor is Malone's answer on cross-examination binding on this court. In fact, Malone's further testimony that he did not become the case agent, that Detective Floyd remained the case agent, that Floyd obtained the warrant, and that Malone's involvement in the investigation was limited all indicate that the state officers still considered it to be a state investigation at the time. Malone's answer to an ambiguous question may merely have indicated that it was at that time that the federal government began considering a concurrent federal investigation and/or federal prosecution. Based solely on this evidence, we cannot find that federal officers were so involved in the state investigation as to mandate that any warrant be obtained pursuant to federal standards. See Alcorn, 9 F. App'x at 431; Hunter, 4 F. App'x at 301.

A plaintiff prosecuted for a 20 year old child sex abuse allegation who was convicted at trial, affirmed on appeal, and released on federal habeas without retrial, stated a sufficient complaint to at least require the defendants to have to file a responsive pleading. Weimer v. County of Kern, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93539 (E.D. Cal. December 22, 2006).*


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