LAPD skid row searches found unconstitutional

Times Staff Writers

A federal judge has ruled that some Los Angeles police tactics in patrolling downtown are unconstitutional, raising questions about the city’s successful campaign to dramatically reduce the number of crimes and homeless people.

U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson found that officers question -- and at times search -- parolees and probationers without evidence that they might have committed a crime, which the judge said was unconstitutional. He ordered the LAPD to change its practices.

City officials strongly disputed the judge’s decision and said that police were acting within the law. If the city appeals the ruling, a higher court ultimately would have to decide the legal issues in the case.


The Los Angeles Police Department is in the midst of a major crackdown on downtown crime, having made 6,000 arrests in the last six months and recorded a 35% drop in crime. The crackdown has corresponded with a drop in downtown’s street dwellers, from 1,800 last September to fewer than 750 last week, LAPD statistics show.

The changes come at a time when the once-blighted city center is undergoing gentrification. The LAPD has vowed to stop the rampant drug dealing on and around skid row, an area in which 20% of the city’s drug arrests are made.

City officials have struggled for years to devise a policing policy for downtown that passes legal muster in its treatment of homeless people. A federal appeals court last year found the city’s anti-camping ordinance to be unconstitutional, scuttling LAPD efforts to prevent the homeless from sleeping on downtown sidewalks at night.

Some legal experts said that Pregerson’s decision had established another serious roadblock to the LAPD’s drive to clean up downtown.

“It’s an important decision,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School. “It sort of resolves an argument percolating out there, that ... the LAPD would have permission to stop anybody.”

The ruling, she said, reaffirms “the right of the homeless not to be subjected to unwarranted, suspicionless searches. Even if they don’t have much to their name, they still have their constitutional rights.”


The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit that Pregerson ruled on, maintained that police officers routinely stopped people and questioned them about their parole or probation status. Officers often handcuffed them and searched them without any reasonable suspicion of a crime, the organization charged in court papers.

The ACLU in 2003 won an injunction that barred the LAPD from stopping or searching skid row residents without reasonable suspicion that they had committed a crime or were violating parole or probation.

But after the crackdown began last year -- with the LAPD adding 50 officers to patrol downtown -- the ACLU and some homeless rights advocates charged that officers again were violating the rights of skid row residents by searching people improperly.

“These aren’t just isolated instances where an officer was overzealous and crossed the line and searched in a situation where he or she shouldn’t have,” ACLU attorney Peter Bibring said.

Paul Johnson, a 10-year skid row resident, wrote in a declaration that was included in the ACLU’s case that a person’s parole status was “the first question they ask after asking your name.”

The LAPD countered that officers searched a person on probation or parole only when there was reasonable suspicion of a crime -- or when the person was caught for a violation such as littering or jaywalking.


But Pregerson disagreed with the LAPD’s contention, concluding that ample evidence indicated that the Police Department had a policy “of searching skid row residents without knowledge of any search conditions imposed.”

“The law does not allow such searches. Accordingly, the court finds that, even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to defendants, they have admitted to an unconstitutional policy,” Pregerson wrote in his opinion.

The LAPD had cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court case in which justices upheld the right of police agencies to search parolees without knowledge that they had committed a crime. Pregerson, however, said that in that ruling, the justices stated that such a search could occur only if police first knew the conditions of each individual’s parole.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Police Chief William J. Bratton defended the department.

“The streets of skid row are much safer today, thanks to the dedication of the men and women of Central Area,” Bratton said in the statement. “The LAPD has a clear policy, based on constitutional requirements, on the rules and regulations relating to citizen stops, which are being followed. The department constantly trains officers and supervisors on those rules and regulations and will continue to do so.”

Pregerson ordered the LAPD to comply with all state and federal laws -- with another review of the injunction set for August.


The decision comes at a tough time for city officials, who have vowed to clean up the skid row area -- long the city’s center for homeless camping and drug dealing.

Downtown has seen in influx of high-end lofts, condos and retail business on streets long dominated by homelessness and drug dealing.

The LAPD has won wide praise from downtown merchants and residents for cracking down on crime and blight. Since last fall, the LAPD has made 4,166 felony arrests and 1,727 misdemeanor arrests. “The LAPD is saving lives by the work they are doing here,” said Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Assn., which represents businesses and merchants. “There’s fewer people exposed to the violence, ensnared in daily drug markets and the inhumanity of the streets that exposes them to the elements.”

It remains unclear to what degree arrests would decline as the LAPD complies with Pregerson’s order.

“It reins in the use of probation and parole searches as just another authorization for warrantless police activity that would otherwise be governed by constitutional limits,” said Gerald F. Uelman, a Santa Clara University law school professor.

James Hurley of the Homeless Health Care Center of Los Angeles’ Harm Reduction program said he had seen a dramatic reduction in the number of people using the center’s services. He said that people who used the center either had been sent to jail or were staying away from skid row.


“They still have nowhere to go,” Hurley said, “and when they are released from custody or decide that it’s safe to return, they will come right back into this community. We have created a much larger problem.... And they aren’t creating more shelters. We are going to be right back in that situation when these people start to return.”



Begin text of infobox

Crime in downtown Los Angeles

Reports of serious crimes in the LAPD’s Central Division - which includes skid row - are down 35% overall so far this year compared to the same period in 2006.

Year to date*%

*--* 2006 2007 % change Homicide 4 1 -75% Rape 8 10 +25 Robbery 250 130 -48 Aggravated assault 186 148 -20 Total violent crimes 448 289 -35 Total property crimes** 1,046 686 -34 Total serious crimes* 1,494 975 -35


*Through April 14 of each year

**Includes burglary, grand theft auto, burglary/theft from a vehicle, personal/other theft

Source: LAPD