Attorneys have begun sorting through a federal jury's complicated verdict in a lawsuit that pitted homeless campers against Sacramento cops.
The jury decided the city has violated the constitutional rights of homeless people by failing to protect their property during police sweeps of illegal camps. So how does the city correct those violations? And to what degree must it reimburse homeless people for the tents, sleeping bags, medicines and other personal items they lost?
Sacramento County settled its portion of the class-action lawsuit in 2009 with a payment of $488,000 and the development of elaborate policies for tagging and storing items seized during sweeps of illegal campsites. The jury verdict could end up costing the city twice that much in legal fees and reimbursements to campers, said Mark Merin, who acted as lawyer for the homeless plaintiffs.
Merin's office already is circulating "claim forms" allowing homeless people to detail their losses.
"Interest in coming forward and claiming compensation has risen significantly," said Merin. "The city is going to have to compensate everyone who lost property."
But Chief Deputy City Attorney Chance Trimm said he is not yet ready to concede to a big payout or a major policy change.
"We didn't settle this case because we didn't think we did anything inappropriate from a constitutional standpoint," he said. "We believed we struck the correct balance between enforcing the camping ordinance and addressing public health-and-safety issues."
City officials might appeal the two counts the jury rendered against the city, he said. Otherwise, "we will have to work with the plaintiffs to see if we can work something out between us."
In that case, with the possible help of a mediator, the two sides would consider each instance in which someone claimed property was seized in violation of the constitution, assess the value, and come up with a mutually acceptable number that the court would have to approve.
"How do we test the veracity of the people coming forward?" asked Trimm. "How do establish the value of the property? These are all questions that would have to be decided."
New rules may be in store
In addition to financial reimbursements, another possible remedy would be an injunction imposing standards and procedures for handling property seized from homeless people.
The trial, which wrapped up late last month in U.S. District Court, featured a parade of homeless witnesses who claimed city police stomped on their constitutional rights by grabbing their property during raids and throwing it away without giving them a chance to later retrieve it. It was believed to be the first case of its kind to go before a jury.
The city's key witness was Mark Zoulas, a city police officer who testified that he and his partners are obligated to enforce a city ordinance against camping in undesignated areas for more than 24 hours. They must keep campers moving from place to place, he said, in response to complaints about trash, noise and other problems, and then clean up the mess left behind.
Zoulas said he did the best he could to notify campers about sweeps and help them protect their property. But he also testified that the city has no policies, regulations or general orders on how to deal with the homeless.
After deliberating over five days, jurors found that the city failed to properly notify homeless people about how to retrieve their possessions and did not implement policies for handling that property.
The jury rejected several other claims, including one that the city had "a long-standing custom and practice" of unreasonably seizing and destroying the property of campers.
"The jury seems to be saying that it was legitimate to tear down the campsites, but that the city should have treated the seized property with respect and preserved it for the owners to claim," said Brian K. Landsberg, a distinguished professor and scholar at McGeorge School of Law and a specialist in constitutional law.
"The legal conclusion would be that the city deprived the plaintiffs of property without due process of law, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Property rights hold a high place in the constitutional framework, and this is as true of the property of the homeless as it is of property of the affluent."
A problem elsewhere, too
Lawsuits seeking to protect the constitutional rights of homeless people have made their way through federal courts across the country during the past decade.
In Miami, the district court ruled that the city's practice of arresting homeless people for "life sustaining" activities is unconstitutional because it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. In Fresno, a federal judge ruled that the city's practice of immediately seizing and destroying the personal property of homeless people was unconstitutional.
In Alaska, a class-action suit filed on behalf of homeless campers resulted in new procedures for handling their property, backed by "an ordinance that respects the rights of all individuals," said Jeffrey Mittman of the American Civil Liberties Union in that state.
Since settling its part of the case involving Merin's clients, Sacramento County follows strict procedures for notifying campers of their rights and taking care of their property following sweeps, said park ranger Will Safford.
Upon finding an illegal camp, rangers first encourage homeless people to move their possessions and even offer them large bags to help them relocate, he said. Most leave within 24 to 48 hours, he said. Others face citations or seizure of their property, which is then tagged, bagged, logged and kept in a North 16th Street storage locker for up to 90 days.
Rangers post notices at campsites detailing where and how the property can be retrieved. Only items that are illegal or obviously trash, such as perishable food, contraband or objects infested with pests, are destroyed.
"Anything that looks like it has any value, we bag it up for safekeeping," said Safford.
"It's hard work," he added. "It's a very laborious process."
More often than not, homeless people contact the county and retrieve their stored possessions, he said.
"But sometimes they just don't bother," said Stafford. "We had one guy, we picked up two truckloads of his stuff and he never came and got it. When we contacted him, he said, 'Never mind. I don't want it.' "