Panel Again Rejects Homeless Man’s Appeal
A state appeals court on Friday threw out, for a second time, a $9,300 award to a homeless man whose belongings were discarded by Santa Ana employees in 1989 and reversed its decision allowing the man to seek lesser damages at a new trial.
Santa Ana officials called the opinion helpful for cities coping with similar problems. But an attorney for the homeless man, Marshone Bonner, called it a “troubling” blow to a verdict once hailed as a victory for the rights of homeless people.
The 16-page opinion by the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana, which could set legal precedent, is the second stemming from a 1992 jury verdict in favor of Bonner, who contended his state constitutional rights were violated when city employees tossed out the trash bag that held all his possessions.
The large bag, which he said included a diamond ring and watch given to him by his estranged wife, as well as photographs of his three daughters, was taken by maintenance workers one morning in July 1989 during a sweep of the Orange County Civic Center.
Bonner contended during trial that the city had a policy of taking property from the homeless. The city denied such a policy existed and said the bag, found behind some bushes, was discarded by mistake.
Bonner’s first trial ended in a mistrial after a jury deadlocked. In a second, jurors awarded him $1,300 for the loss of his belongings, and $8,000 for emotional damages.
The appellate panel reversed the award in 1994, saying jurors had not been properly instructed and the city was entitled to a new trial that held stricter limits to the man’s potential damage claims.
Even if he could prove at a second trial that one of his constitutional rights had been violated, Bonner would not be entitled to money for emotional damages, the court ruled then.
Bonner appealed the ruling to the California Supreme Court, which sent the case back to the appellate court for the second review.
In the latest opinion, citing a new case arising from the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the court said Bonner now is not entitled to monetary damages under the California Constitution. The court said Bonner should have instead sued Santa Ana for conversion--the civil equivalent of theft--and ordered the trial court to enter a judgment in favor of the city.
Santa Ana Assistant City Atty. Robert J. Wheeler said officials were gratified by the opinion, calling it an important decision in determining what types of legal complaints can be brought against cities coping with similar homeless problems.
“The case is helpful to cities,” Wheeler said. “If we should inadvertently discard some of [a homeless person’s] property, we’re not looking at some sort of lawsuit under the California Constitution.”
Christopher B. Mears, an attorney representing Bonner, said the opinion is “grossly unfair” to those who are trying to seek damages for constitutional violations.
“This lawsuit was an effort, first and foremost, to vindicate violation of those rights,” said Mears, who believes his client is still homeless in the area. “Conversion does nothing, if successful, to vindicate his constitutional rights.”
The attorney said Bonner’s legal team will consider asking the state Supreme Court to review the opinion.