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Judge Orders City of Los Angeles to Stop Seizing and Destroying Unhoused Residents’ Large Personal Items

LOS ANGELES, April 13, 2020 — In a victory for people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles, today, a judge ordered the City of Los Angeles to stop enforcing a provision of a city ordinance that allowed the City to seize and immediately destroy homeless people’s belongings, based solely on the size of the item. The Court found that the law likely violates the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. 

U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer ruled for a group of unhoused individuals and a community organization, KTown For All, who filed a lawsuit in July 2019, challenging the constitutionality of parts of Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 56.11 and the City’s continued and widespread practice of seizing and destroying homeless people’s belongings. Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angles, Schonbrun Seplow Harris Hoffman & Zeldes LLP, and  Kirkland & Ellis LLP represent the plaintiffs, who live in neighborhoods stretching across Los Angeles, from Van Nuys to Harbor City.

The plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction to stop enforcement of the part of Los Angeles Municipal Code section 56.11 that allows the City to immediately take and throw away homeless people’s belongings that LA Sanitation workers determine to be “bulky.”  A prior ruling by the Court held that the law by its own terms applied only to homeless people’s belongings. 

“This law would have never been written if it was going to be used against people who were housed,” said Jane Nguyen, co-founder of Ktown for All, who is a plaintiff in the litigation. “Every time we do outreach, we pass by tourists with large luggage, bikes locked up with the wheels taken off, and illegal valet stands, restaurant furniture, and planters that are technically stored on the sidewalk. No one would ever dream the City could just take and throw those things away like the city does to homeless people’s belongings.” 

The law does not require the City to give people any notice that their belongings are “bulky” or an opportunity to challenge that determination, before the items are seized and immediately destroyed. Under another provision of the law, individuals who resist the city’s decision to immediately take and throw away their possessions could be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor, which carries a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. 

“This law does not provide unhoused residents of this City with any of the protections that are guaranteed by the United States Constitution,” said Shayla Myers, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.  

“This injunction is a victory for our clients, but it is incredibly frustrating that, yet again, homeless people had to go into federal court just to protect their basic rights and to ensure the city does not throw away items they need to survive.” 

Plaintiffs presented evidence that the City used the ordinance to take and throw away a homemade cart used to transport groceries and water, a dog kennel, plastic storage bins and pallets unhoused residents were using to  keep their belongings dry, and even bedding. Plaintiffs worried that they would be forced to turn over similar items again in the future if the Court did not step in.    

In her order granting the motion for a preliminary injunction, Judge Fischer noted that “Plaintiffs have demonstrated the importance of these items to the people who own them.” (Order, fn 15). Plaintiffs testified that they use these items to obtain and store groceries, to sleep on, to keep their clothing dry, and to ensure that their pets are safe and secure. 

Attorney Catherine Sweetser of Schonbrun Seplow Harris Hoffman & Zeldes LLP said, “The court recognized that seizing and destroying attended items such as carts and storage bins made it more difficult for the unhoused plaintiffs to stay safe and dry on the streets.”

The Court further noted that “homelessness is a significant issue,” but that the Bulky Item Provision that was enjoined “cannot be the solution that that problem.” Order at 22. She further noted that nothing in the order prohibits the City from “using its resources to create shelters or other facilities”. 

Read the ruling.


About Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles

Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) seeks to achieve equal justice for people living in poverty across Greater Los Angeles. LAFLA changes lives through direct representation, systems change and community empowerment. It has five offices in Los Angeles County, along with four Self-Help Legal Access Centers at area courthouses and three domestic violence clinics to aid survivors.

About Schonbrun Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP

Schonbrun Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP is a plaintiffs’ side firm which focuses on civil rights, international human rights, and plaintiffs’ side employment litigation.

About Kirkland & Ellis LLP

Kirkland & Ellis is an international law firm with more than 2,700 attorneys representing clients in private equity, M&A and other complex corporate transactions, litigation and dispute resolution/arbitration, restructuring, and intellectual property matters. The Firm operates from 15 offices around the world: Beijing, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Hong Kong, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Munich, New York, Palo Alto, Paris, San Francisco, Shanghai and Washington, D.C.