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Property Theft in Sacramento

HomelessIn May, Cynthia Hubert reported for The Sacramento Bee on a very unusual class-action lawsuit in which people experiencing homelessness sued Sacramento, California, for violating their constitutional rights by seizing and disposing of their property.

Spoiler alert: Here is the outcome of this legal action, the most significant line in the piece… On second thought, it’s not much of a spoiler. No surprise at all, in what is also the most predictable line:

But [Senior Deputy City Attorney] Trimm said he expects no immediate changes in city policy on the homeless.

You have to admire the guy. He tells it like it is, in a city with tough rules that prohibit staying in “undesignated areas” for more than 24 hours, and with apparently very little consideration for the belongings of street people anywhere, at any time.

One of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, Mark Merin, is known as a longtime advocate for the homeless. The suit was filed in 2009, against both city and county, and the county agreed to a $488,000 settlement payment. (A similar outcome recently occurred in Oregon.) But the city of Sacramento refused to settle.

Chance Trimm, who is, as we mentioned, Senior Deputy City Attorney, told the jurors a sad story about how, at times, it is unclear “what is usable property, and what is junk that no one wants.” He talks as if this whole lawsuit is about the necessity to clean up the disgusting messes that people leave behind when they vacate a tent city or a camp.

Does this make sense? Who leaves a tent city? Individuals may come and go, but everybody doesn’t clear out at once, unless there is a good reason, such as a sweep or cleanup, or whatever the current local terminology may be. If camps are tolerated, they tend to stabilize and grow. If a tent city is unpopulated, it’s because the people were forced to leave, and to leave their stuff behind.

If, as Trimm says, the problem is distinguishing usable property from junk, why not just ask somebody: “Hey, what about this tarp? Is this usable, or junk?” Problem is, in the circumstances he’s talking about, nobody is around to ask. The people have already been removed from the area and the police and their hirelings are busy throwing everything into dumpsters. In other words, the authorities try to make it sound like the issue is abandoned property of questionable usefulness.

But some of the plaintiffs are talking about having stuff taken right out of their hands. Linda McKinley recounted her experience of being awakened in the middle of the night when sleeping on the street.

The journalist reports,

‘They put all our stuff in a trailer,’ she said. ‘They just picked it up and threw it in there like garbage.’ Among the items she lost that day, she said, were her identification card, eyeglasses, medication, legal papers and photographs. ‘I just lost everything,’ she said. ‘It was really devastating. It was like losing my house in a sense. It was like I had been stripped.’

Senior Deputy City Attorney Trimm also testified that policies are applied equally to everyone, and that homeless people and their property are not treated differently from any other people or property. Could there have been a straight face in the courtroom?

Something else is wacky here. If a previous criminal record is allowed to be discussed, the purpose is to discredit a witness in the eyes of the judge and jury. During the course of these proceedings, the state got Marinthia Hunt to admit she’s had 10 tickets for illegal camping. Well, duh! That’s why the woman is here, because the trial concerns the things that happen to people on the streets, such as receiving tickets for, basically, the crime of breathing while homeless.

How did the lawsuit, the homeless against the city, turn out? Hubert reports,

Technically, homeless men and women… won a constitutional victory Tuesday in federal court. But following a mixed verdict in a civil lawsuit that questioned the city’s handling of property collected during police sweeps of homeless camps, it is unclear whether anything will change in the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between cops and the down and out.

The jury deliberated for more than five days and decided that the city had failed in the areas of proper notification about how to recover any seized belongings, and of implementation of whatever policies previously existed. But the jury rejected the claim that the city’s bad habits constitute a “long-standing custom and practice.”

Actually, the outcome sounds rather vague. Hubert writes,

The lawsuit did not ask for specific damages, and it remains unclear exactly what remedy the plaintiffs will seek. Instead, attorneys from both sides, with the court’s help, will try to sort out how the plaintiffs should be compensated for constitutional violations cited by the jury.

John Burdett writes novels about Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a Buddhist cop in Thailand, probably the only uncorrupted representative of the government in the entire country. His boss seems to keep him on the force as kind of a token, or mascot, or good-luck charm. For some reason, one of Hubert’s paragraphs about the Sacramento trial brings that fictional character to mind:

In his opening statement, Trimm said officers assigned to homeless issues have reached out to campers, at times helping them connect to services or transporting them to court dates. Officer Mark Zoulas, part of a city police team that homeless people fondly refer to as ‘Batman and Robin,’ will be the city’s star witness. ‘He cares for them. He cares for their safety,’ Trimm said of Zoulas.

Okay, some kind of ersatz comic book hero of an officer is helping the homeless and, incidentally, being used to put a good public relations face on the Sacramento police force. Meanwhile, a genuine, U.S. government-certified hero is robbed of the tangible reminders of his courage and sacrifice.

Hubert relates the story of plaintiff Kendall Gabriel:

[…] An Army veteran who said he lost a Silver Star and a Purple Heart for combat service during a police sweep downtown on Ahern Street in 2005. Gabriel, in a hallway interview, said police grabbed a bag containing those items and others and refused to give it back. It took him two years to replace the medals, he said, and the new ones are not engraved with his name like the originals.

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Source: “Federal court hears from homeless about police seizing their possessions,” The Sacramento Bee, 05/10/11
Source: “Sacramento homeless gain mixed verdict on loss of possessions,” The Sacramento Bee, 05/25/11
Image by Risiger, used under its Creative Commons license.