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L.A. can’t seize homeless people’s bulky items solely based on size, judge rules

A homeless encampment near the 101 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles.
A homeless encampment near the 101 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles must stop seizing and tossing out bulky things such as mattresses, carts and dog kennels that homeless people stash on sidewalks or other public property based solely on their size, a federal judge has ruled.

The decision, which cements a tentative ruling issued in March, bars the city from enforcing a city law that bans people from keeping big items — those that cannot fit into a 60-gallon container — in public areas.

U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer concluded that the homeless individuals and advocacy groups that brought the case were likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the rule was unconstitutional, concluding that “the seizure and immediate destruction of bulky items only because they are bulky items is unreasonable.”

Fischer noted that the preliminary injunction still allows city crews to confiscate such belongings in other circumstances, “including when items are unattended, blocking the sidewalk, or a threat to health and safety.”

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Homeless people and their advocates greeted the decision as a victory. In their lawsuit, a group of homeless individuals and advocacy organizations including the outreach group Ktown for All argued that the city law provides “no check of any kind” on the power of the sanitation department to seize and destroy things on the street.

It also “provides absolutely no mechanism to contest any decision by city workers, even though the consequence of those decisions is the immediate and often permanent deprivation of property,” the plaintiffs argued.

In his nightly coronavirus briefings, Mayor Eric Garcetti has struck a tone that is one part stern dad, one part life coach, with a hint of Marianne Williamson.

Monday’s ruling also prohibits the city from enforcing another provision that bans people from resisting or obstructing city employees who remove or discard items that violate city restrictions on items stored in public areas.

Ktown for All and the other plaintiffs argued that it stops people from contesting “on-the-spot decisions” about what violates the city rule.

“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,” Shayla Myers, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said in a statement Monday.

City attorneys argued in court filings that the ban on bulky items was needed to “keep public spaces clean, safe and usable by all” and called it “entirely reasonable to limit the size of items that a person can store in a finite public space.”

The rise in homelessness in Los Angeles has left city officials facing a torrent of complaints about items strewn along streets and sidewalks. Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents a Watts-to-San Pedro district, said that the decision would lead to “an unlimited amount of personal property being stored on our sidewalks.”

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“Our residents ought to be outraged about this,” Buscaino said.

L.A. has relied on shelters and hotels to help homeless people at risk for coronavirus. But city-sanctioned tent cities are getting fresh look, too.

In her Monday ruling, Fischer rejected the argument that the preliminary injunction would totally prevent bulky items from being removed from public areas, saying that the city could still take away those objects for other reasons.

That failed to reassure Estela Lopez, executive director of a business improvement district that covers much of skid row.

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Lopez argued that the new ruling would make city workers hesitant to enforce other rules for fear of getting sued again.

“Where is the limit?” she asked of stopping the bulky item ban. “You have these gigantic encampments that contain numerous bulky items. ... It’s really hoarding on the public right of way.”

In a statement, Ktown for All co-founder Jane Nguyen countered that such rules are not enforced against housed people, citing examples such as “illegal valet stands, restaurant furniture, and planters that are technically stored on the sidewalk.”

A dedicated network of volunteers at nonprofits, churches and shelters is trying to keep Los Angeles’ homeless communities fed during the global coronavirus outbreak.

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“No one would ever dream the city could just take and throw those things away like the city does to homeless people’s belongings,” Nguyen said.

It is unclear what the next steps are for the city. Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer, said their office would review the order and had “no further comment at this time.”

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.


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