By Gary Walker
A decision by the nation’s highest court not to review an appeal by Los Angeles to allow city officials to confiscate belongings left on the street by homeless persons was aimed at those living on Skid Row, but will reach beyond downtown Los Angeles all the way to the city’s coastline.
The Supreme Court denied the petition for review June 24 of the case Lavan vs. City of Los Angeles, forbidding the city from taking possession of clothing and others items of homeless individuals left behind on streets. A federal court had enjoined the city in 2011 from taking this action and former City Attorney Carmen Trutanich’s office appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The appellate court upheld the lower court’s ruling.
An injunction that is currently in place permits the city to take abandoned property, but not unattended property which is not abandoned. It also permits Los Angeles officials to remove property on Skid Row that presents an imminent public health or safety threat.
In Venice, which was once seen as a haven for the homeless but in recent times has become a flashpoint of controversy between residents more sympathetic to those without shelter and a cadre of residents who view them as a societal blight, there have also been attempts to confiscate their property.
Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Association, brought a resolution before the Venice Neighborhood Council last July that asked the Los Angeles Police Department to enforce five provisions of the city’s municipal code, including prohibitions against camping, leaving possessions on city sidewalks and sleeping or lying on public right-of-ways.
Ryavec cited sections 62:61, 41:18 and 56:11 among the other portions of the municipal code in his resolution.
The Venice council unanimously rejected his motion and the Supreme Court’s refusal to review the city’s appeal will prevent anyone who is homeless in Venice from having a police officer or city officials take away their unattended possessions, with certain exceptions.
“I think it was a good result,” Carol Sobel said of the Supreme Court’s decision. Sobel is the Santa Monica attorney who handled the plaintiffs’ case.
Prior to the Venice council’s vote, Jane Usher, a special assistant to Trutanich, sent the board a set of recommendations to consider before they took action.
Usher, a former city planning commissioner, advised the local board to study Municipal Code Section 62:61, which addresses obstructing a public street or right-of-way. “Enforcement of the code requires four administrative citations to the same person in a 12-month period prior to a criminal prosecution,” Usher wrote.
“Similarly, pay close attention to each passage of (Municipal Code 41.18 (a), which addresses the prohibition of a person prohibiting the free passage of pedestrians on a public sidewalk) because each element must be proven to sustain a violation,” she explained.
Police officers do not enforce Section 41.18 (d) of the municipal code between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. due to a settlement agreement that the city reached in 2008 in Jones v. the City of Los Angeles. Section 41.18 (d) addresses the prohibition of sleeping, lying or sitting on a public sidewalk.
“Municipal Code 56.11 is the subject of an injunction applicable to Skid Row (in downtown Los Angeles) requiring, among other things, that the city tag and store any removed property for 90 days,” Usher wrote.
City Councilman Mike Bonin said by denying the review, the Supreme Court is affording the city the opportunity to work toward solutions outside the legal arena.
“Whether folks like the decision or not the Lavan decision now stands,” Bonin stated. “The thing that we need to do now is find a place where homeless folks can safely and securely store their belongings.”
Bonin said on Skid Row there is a type of warehouse where homeless people living on downtown streets can store their personal possessions, and he thinks that approach should be investigated and replicated on a smaller scale on the Westside.
David Ewing, a Venice resident who has followed the case, sees Lavan and the Jones legal settlement, as turning points in what he considers to be the legislative branch’s rejection of the desire of some municipalities to act in a punitive fashion to rid their cities of what they consider to be a human blight.
“We’re seeing a pattern within the courts where they’re saying cities like Los Angeles are not dealing with their homeless population in a humane way,” he said.
Under Jones, the Los Angeles Police Department agreed not to enforce the section of the code that states “no person shall sit, lie or sleep in or on any street, sidewalk or any other public way” between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., except at 10 feet in front of an entrance and exit of a building and 10 feet in front of a loading dock.
Venice resident Stewart Oscars said the high court’s refusal to review the case raises more questions than answers.
“Who will determine when (a homeless person’s personal property) can be taken?” asked Oscars, who lives in the Presidents Row area of Venice. “Who will determine when they are abandoned and how will that be determined?”
Sobel said the best option the city has is to settle the case, and she is confident after the high court’s action that her clients would prevail again if the city decided to continue pursuing litigation.
“I think that a court would agree not to allow anyone to take away a person’s possessions,” the attorney said.
Bonin said there is a new element that cities throughout California should consider that could make the percentage of homeless jump in the coming months, and he touched on the need to act promptly on his idea to find a place for the homeless to store their belongings.
“It’s important to note the context in which (the Lavan decision) is happening. Because of prison realignment, we could see a proliferation of more homeless people soon,” Bonin cautioned.
The councilman was referring to a recent federal order mandating the release of 9,600 inmates from state prisons due to overcrowded conditions.
Gov. Jerry Brown has vowed to fight the federal decree. He has until Tuesday, July 13 to file an appeal.
A June 29 report from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority showed a 16 percent increase in homelessness countywide since 2011. While the report indicated a decline in homelessness among veterans and families, there was a sharp uptick among youths.
Sobel said the city could still seek to challenge the injunction and she is open to settling Lavan, but under certain conditions.
“We would abide by what the county Public Health Department has recommended, which is that a person’s belongings be kept off the ground by at least 18 inches and moved once every few days,” she said.
City Attorney Michael Feuer did not return calls for comment at Argonaut press time.