On May 12 of this year, a Federal judge ruled that by immediately seizing and destroying the personal possessions of the city’s homeless residents, the City of Fresno, California violated the Constitutional right of every person to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Fresno and Department of Transportation officials had violated the rights of homeless people by “cleaning up” tent cities and destroying personal belongings. US District Judge Oliver W. Wagner also gave preliminary approval for $2.35 million to be awarded to hundreds of Fresno residents involved in the class action lawsuit Kincaid v. Fresno on June 12. That decision was finalized on Friday, July 25. The homeless plaintiffs were represented by a team of attorneys from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC) and the law firm Heller Ehrman LLP.
ACLU-NC staff attorney Michael Risher warned, “The court’s ruling and the settlement should send a strong message to other cities throughout our country that if they violate the rights of their most vulnerable residents, they will be held accountable.” He continued, “The ruling makes it clear that our constitution protects the rights of everybody, rich or poor.”
Officials in the City of San Diego are reportedly, “on pins and needles” in light of this decision, according to San Diego Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Marco Garmo, but San Francisco officials have shown no such signs.
Reports of property seizures are rising due to an increase in the harassment of poor and homeless residents by the police and other City departments. The officers of SFPD’s “Operation Outreach,” an enforcement effort focused on poor and homeless people, meet weekly with the Department of Public Works (DPW), the Mayor’s Homeless Outreach Team, and other City government and business representatives to coordinate their enforcement effort. They are focusing on the SoMa, Tenderloin, and Union Square areas by increasing foot patrols, issuing a greater number of “quality of life” citations, and increasing property seizures in those areas. This crack-down has begun at the same time the Board of Supervisors passed a budget that includes funding for a Community Justice Center which will potentially prosecute and convict people for “quality of life” crimes.
“This is an orchestrated effort to clear poor and homeless people out of San Francisco. This police crack-down is not a coincidence. The City is furthering the victimization of the Low- and No-Income community, merely for its members’ economic status and visible presence. The seizure and destruction of people’s property is just one method they use to do that. It is a clearly illegal activity that the police are engaged in, ” said Karl Start of the Coalition on Homelessness.
The recent upsurge of police harassment clearly violates department policy. In December of 2006, the SFPD released a bulletin that states, “Members of the Department are obligated to treat all persons equally, regardless of their economic or living conditions. The homeless enjoy the same legal and individual rights afforded to others. Members shall at all times respect these rights.”
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights has sent a letter to the San Francisco Police Department, Department of Public Works, and Recreation and Park Department requesting copies of all protocols, policies, and procedures regarding property rights, confiscation, claim procedures, and disposition of property.
The Coalition on Homelessness is documenting and compiling reports of property seizures occurring throughout the city of San Francisco.