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Federal Judge Rules City of Fresno Violated the Rights of Homeless Residents
A summary judgment was issued on May 12, 2008 in the lawsuit by homeless people against the City of Fresno. The statement below is from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, two of the law firms representing the plaintiffs in this case. The trial is scheduled to begin on June 10. The photo below is Pam Kincaid, speaking at the Press Conference at Fresno City Hall, announcing the filing of the lawsuit (October 17, 2006).
Federal Judge Rules City of Fresno
Violated the Rights of Homeless Residents
Destruction of property declared unlawful seizure
Fresno - A U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of California has ruled that the City of Fresno’s practice of immediately seizing and destroying the personal possessions of homeless residents violates the constitutional right of every person to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
“The question is no longer whether the City will have to pay damages to class members, but how much,” said attorney Oren Sellstrom of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights. “Given that many homeless people lost everything they owned in these illegal sweeps – including their medicines and items of tremendous sentimental value – we believe the damage award will be significant.”
“The Court’s ruling in this class-action lawsuit makes it clear that our Constitution protects the rights of everybody, rich or poor,” said attorney Michael Risher of the ACLU of Northern California. “It 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.”
Six plaintiffs provided testimony in the case, Kincaid v. City of Fresno, on behalf of the entire class, which includes all homeless people in Fresno who had their property seized and destroyed by the City or by the California Department of Transportation. The case was bought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and the firm of Heller, Ehrman, LLP.
The case was filed in October 2006. The court issued a temporary restraining order against the City of Fresno two days later; in December 2006 it issued a preliminary injunction after hearing evidence from both sides over the course of five days.
During oral argument on April 25, 2008, Judge Oliver W. Wanger declared that, “…the practice of announce, strike, seize [and] destroy immediately is against the law.” (Excerpted from transcript by court reporter.)
Note to reporters and editors: Video footage and photographs of city workers using machinery and dump trucks to destroy the personal property of homeless residents are available on the ACLU-NC’s website, along with the legal documents in the case: http://www.aclunc.org/cases/active_cases/kincaid_v._city_of_fresno.shtml
Synopses of plaintiffs declarations before the Court
Excerpted from declarations found here: http://www.aclunc.org/cases/active_cases/kincaid_v._city_of_fresno.shtml
Lead Plaintiff Pamela Kincaid died in August of 2007. Kincaid occasionally stayed at the only women’s shelter in Fresno, but she suffered from claustrophobia, which made it difficult for her to remain there. When sanitation workers and police officers seized her belongings, Kincaid lost her birth certificate, her address book, photos of her sister, daughter and mother, and a toolbox with tools she used for the recycling and crafts work she does to earn money, among other items.
“Before I became homeless, I used to have a house and a job. I lost both when I developed injuries at work…I hope that someday I will be able to get off the streets and into permanent housing. But the fact that the city keeps taking and destroying my property makes that goal seem that much harder to achieve. I always live with the fear that the city will come and take what few possessions I have left.”
- Declaration before the court in October 2006
Charlene Clay and her husband left their apartment in 2006 because they could not afford the $850 in rent. They were camped on a hill off of G Street when City of Fresno workers destroyed their belongings – including Clay’s teeth, medications, sleeping bags, and personal papers - without warning. A second time, Clay was staying near San Benito and H Streets when police tipped her shopping cart, threw her possessions on the ground, and hauled her cart away.
“The City of Fresno has made it clear to me by destroying my property twice and by the way in which they did that, that because I am a homeless person, I will always be vulnerable to having my property taken and destroyed by City of Fresno workers and police.”
Joanna Garcia was born and raised in Fresno. She lost her job after she was mistakenly implicated in a robbery committed by her husband. She has worked at Holy Cross Women’s Shelter, earning food vouchers. City workers have seized and destroyed her property five times.
“…my belongings and my boyfriend’s belongings were on the grassy strip across the highway from E Street. They were neatly kept. My boyfriend and I had left for the day; I was working at Holy Cross. When we came back that evening, I said to my boyfriend, ‘I can’t see our home.’ All of our belongings were gone, including tents, blankets, personal papers, clothes, my pink bicycle, and irreplaceable pictures of my grandmother and my son.”
Douglas Deatherage, 43, worked part time at a trucking company. He watched as City of Fresno workers threw his belongings into a garbage truck. “My relatively small amount of personal possessions were not bothering anyone and I was ready and willing to move if the City of Fresno workers wanted to clean the area where they were. It was obvious that my property was not abandoned since I was there with it. I was given no opportunity to move my personal property in order to save it from this destruction that morning.”
For more information, contact: Contact: Malik Russell, ACLU-NC, 415.621.2493, x374 Anayma DeFrias, LCCR, 415.543.9444, x223
For a list of articles and documents about the struggle for civil liberties for homeless people in Fresno, see: http://www.fresnoalliance.com/home/homelessness.htm
This is the document issued by the court.