L.A. officials lied to justify seizing homeless people's belongings. That's despicable

For homeless people, the only place to store their belongings is on the ground or inside a tent. When city workers clean up a sidewalk and take those belongings and destroy them, the effect is devastating. People have lost their tents, clean clothes, personal records, IDs, medications and more, according to a lawsuit accusing the city of Los Angeles of illegal seizure and destruction of property.

Janet Garcia, one of the eight plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles along with pro-bono counsel, who works as a house cleaner, lost her cleaning supplies when L.A. Sanitation workers seized and destroyed her belongings while she stepped away briefly to go to the bathroom and get ready for work, the lawsuit says. The seizure, one of several, made it difficult for her to keep working.

Plaintiff Pete Diocson, Jr., a homeless man in Harbor City, had his dog’s wire kennel seized and discarded because sanitation workers and Los Angeles Police Department officers told him it was a “bulky item,” according to the lawsuit. (Diocson has since died and his estate replaces him in the suit.) And plaintiff Marquis Ashley said his cart was seized as he was using it to move his belongings out of a cleanup area.

It’s disturbing enough that people lost their possessions in clean-ups. It’s unconscionable that city officials lied to justify some of those seizures in documentation for the court in the lawsuit.

U.S. District Court Judge Dale S. Fischer wrote in an order in the case February that the city of Los Angeles had “altered, modified, and created documents” to support its litigation position. Fischer said the city had also “repeatedly failed to produce legitimately requested documents.” Earlier this month she ordered the city to tell the independent forensic examiner where the rest of the documents could be located.

Cleanups of homeless encampments are supposed to be documented. In some cases, the examiner found descriptions of items seized had been changed in the documents from “bulky items” to “health hazards” or “contaminated.” That’s a significant change, because early in the case Fischer ruled that the law allowing the city to take and discard people’s belongings because they were categorized as bulky items was unconstitutional. So if the city’s records showed they had picked up items only because they were bulky, some of the plaintiffs would have made their case on that alone.

City officials didn’t even deny they had changed records. They said they were just going back and correcting errors — sometimes years after cleanups.

Fischer didn’t buy it, calling their explanations for changes “unconvincing to say the least” and noted that “the City’s credibility has been damaged significantly.” When the city contended that it was overwhelmed by the number of encampment cleanups while it was also producing documents and data for the court, Fischer tartly wrote, “Producing the documents without alteration and declining to create documents would have been less ‘overwhelming.’ ”

When the forensic examination is finished, Fischer warned she would consider sanctions on the city. Good. There must be consequences for illegally seizing and destroying the property of people who are already so marginalized they are forced to live on the street.

The seizures in the lawsuit all took place in 2018 and 2019, years before Karen Bass became mayor in December 2022. But she is the mayor who will deal with any sanctions. And it is the office of the current city attorney, Hydee Feldstein Soto, that responded to the evidence of altered documents with the excuses that Fischer scoffed at — although Bass has no control over that office. We hope that she’s already instructed city workers to focus more on cleaning than snatching people’s belongings and destroying them. For example, the city could do more trash pickups so that homeless people could dispose of their actual trash.

There are about 46,000 homeless people in the city of Los Angeles — and more than 32,000 of them live outside on sidewalks, under overpasses and in vehicles. That’s a lot of possessions in tents and outside tents. As fraught as street cleanups are, doctoring some documents to raise the chances of winning a lawsuit is inexcusable and outrageous.

No one is suggesting that the city be blocked from cleanups or confiscating items that truly constitute a public health hazard. Cleanups where advance notice is given properly and clearly can be useful. But until the city has enough housing for people living in those encampments, they must respect their rights not to have their already fragile lives upended by cleanups.

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