Homeless men, women file claims in Sacramento for seized belongings

Published: Friday, Mar. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Friday, Mar. 23, 2012 - 7:40 am

Hundreds of homeless men and women this week began filing reimbursement claims for tents, bicycles and other items seized by Sacramento police during raids of illegal encampments since 2005.

In a highly unusual agreement reached between the city and homeless plaintiffs to resolve a class-action lawsuit, people who show that the city destroyed their belongings each will be paid either $400 or $750, depending upon the value of the property.

Patrons of Loaves & Fishes, the city's largest homeless services complex, are lining up to fill out claim forms, said Paula Lomazzi of the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee. "It's pretty busy," she said Thursday. "We've already gone through 400 to 500 forms." Forms also are available at shelters and other places where homeless people gather.

A thousand or more people may ultimately submit claims, which are due by June 8, said civil rights attorney Mark Merin, who brought the federal lawsuit on behalf of homeless clients.

In addition to possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to homeless people, Merin said, the city also may be responsible for attorney fees for four years of work and a three-week trial. The figure, which would have to be approved by the court, "will amount to a rather high number," he said.

The city will make the payments to homeless plaintiffs "somewhat grudgingly," Senior Deputy City Attorney Chance Trimm said Thursday. "We still don't think we did anything wrong in terms of how we handled the property of the homeless," he said. "But the alternative to resolve this was to go through hundreds of mini-trials, and that wouldn't be a great thing for the court or anyone else. We had to find a way to get this thing to a final judgment."

The resolution came with the blessing of city leaders in closed discussions, he said.

Sacramento County originally was part of the civil lawsuit, but settled its portion 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.

"We don't feel we engaged in the same type of conduct as the county. That's why we took this to trial," said Trimm. "We feel that our officers acted appropriately, in a very compassionate way."

About 300 people filed claims against the county, which paid out about $200,000 to plaintiffs. Trimm said he believes that fewer claims will be validated against city officers because they did a good job of marking and storing property seized at homeless campsites. In many cases, no one claimed the items, he said.

The claim form asks for identifying information including a Social Security number, the approximate date when property was seized, the location, and information about whether city employees were responsible for taking the items. It also asks about the homeless person's efforts to recover the property.

Trimm said he is confident the process will weed out frivolous claims. "We're going to do our best to figure out what is legitimate and what is not," he said.

James Little, 51, is among those who are filing for compensation. Little said he lost a trailer that he used to haul his belongings around town during a raid downtown along Bannon Street about two years ago.

"They took all my property, everything I owned including my dog, Lucky," who ended up at the city pound. Little said he got his dog back but was unable to retrieve his other things.

The city will have the right to dispute any claim following a preliminary ruling by a professional claims administrator, according to the court stipulation. If the dispute cannot be resolved between the battling parties, a federal judge who has been appointed as a "special master" in the case will step in.

The process is the key step toward resolving the city's liability in the lawsuit, which claimed that police stomped on the constitutional rights of homeless people by grabbing their belongings and throwing them away without giving them a chance to get them back.

In the trial in federal court last year, a jury found that the city failed to properly notify homeless people about how to retrieve their possessions, and failed to implement policies for handling that property. The panel rejected several other claims, including that the city had a "long-standing custom and practice" of unreasonably seizing and destroying property of campers and failing to give them reasonable notice of sweeps.

The trial featured a parade of homeless and formerly homeless people, some of whom testified tearfully about losing "survival gear," including sleeping bags and tents, as well as personal items from family photographs to prescription medications.

The city's star witness was a police officer fondly known as "Batman" among homeless men and women. He testified that he and his partners are obligated to enforce a city ordinance that bans camping in undesignated areas for more than 24 hours. Police routinely must roust campers in response to complaints, he said, and then clean up the messes left behind.

Merin said he expects homeless people to begin collecting their checks this summer. The money could lead to some getting temporary housing or replacing the items they lost, he said.

More importantly, Merin said, he hopes that the lawsuit will lead to changes in the way police officers handle homeless people and their possessions. Campers still move around "almost nightly, from place to place" to avoid citations from police, he said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Cynthia Hubert

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