New Court Order Protects Homeless People’s Property Along Santa Ana River

Workers clear out a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River on Feb. 8, in a screenshot of a Facebook live stream by Danny Somerville.

A federal judge on Friday ordered new protections for the property of homeless people living along the Santa Ana River, including requiring a physical notice 24 hours before seizing property and mandating that “essential items” like tents, sleeping bags, and medical papers be stored within one mile of where they were taken.

The order, issued by U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, applies to county officials and went into effect immediately Friday morning.

It comes as the county tries to clear out an encampment along the eastern bank of the river, south of Angel Stadium, as part of a project to store boulders and sand there for public works projects.

As part of that effort, county officials have seized the possessions of several homeless people, who had to travel over 20 miles to pick up their property in Lake Forest. And they only could claim the property by appointment during a one-hour window each week.

But attorneys Carol Sobel and Brooke Weitzman challenged that process, filing suit on behalf of several homeless residents of the riverbank, including Tammy Schuler.

The suit claimed the county illegally “seized personal property and largely destroyed it without an opportunity for the rightful owner to reclaim it,” in violation of rulings by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In his order, Carter found that they were likely to win their case.

“Plaintiffs have offered evidence that the County has taken their property, sometimes without notice, and destroyed the property,” the judge wrote.

“Further, Plaintiffs have explained that because of the remoteness of the storage facility, the storage the County currently offers is unlikely to truly mitigate against a due process violation,” he continued.

“The Court is especially concerned about this deprivation when it comes to the items that Plaintiffs have the strongest possessory interest in, such as shelter and bedding items and personal documents. Accordingly, the Court is convinced that the Plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the merits.”

Among other things, he required “essential items including tents, tarps, blankets, sleeping bags, identification and medical papers must be stored within one mile of the place where they were seized, and be available for retrieval by its rightful owner during regular business hours on a daily basis without prior appointment.”

(Click here to read the order.)

A hearing is scheduled for March 6 on whether to change the temporary restraining order or turn it into a longer-term order known as a preliminary injunction.

The order will help many homeless people along the river who have multiple disabilities and have been fearful of losing their property, Weitzman said in a phone interview Friday evening.

“The goal here is for people who are homeless to feel as safe as they can and hold” onto the things they need to survive, she said.

“For those folks, even though they’re still scared that they may get relocated again, there’s some comfort in knowing that there’s some notice” that their belongings could be thrown away.

County spokeswoman Carrie Braun said the county would follow the ruling while also clearing the encampment for the public works project.

“We’re (going to) comply with the judge’s order, and we’re (going to) continue to move forward with the project as allowed,” Braun said in a telephone interview.

She said officials were still working on securing a property storage location within a mile of the river, as required by the order. It’s expected to be up and running “early next week,” she said.

The new order comes on the heels of a settlement agreement reached a week ago between the American Civil Liberties Union and the county that gave homeless people an extra week to move from the project area.

Weitzman, whose suit is separate from the ACLU case, said she hoped to reach a new settlement deal with the county so possessions are protected “and no one’s having their constitutional rights violated.”

As for where people at the encampment have moved to, Weitzman said many have moved across to the western side of the river, and further north near Angel Stadium.

“We’ll see” over next few days if they’ll be allowed to stay there or be forced to move again, she said. But under the new court order, if the county does move people out from those areas they have to follow the order’s rules of notice and storage, Weitzman said.

The homeless situation is expected to be discussed at Tuesday’s county Board of Supervisors meeting, where several activists said they plan to show up again to address supervisors. The meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. at the county Hall of Administration.

Below is the full text of what the judge ordered county officials to do:

1. Absent an objectively reasonable belief that the property presents an immediate threat to public health or safety, or is evidence of a crime, or contraband, the County must provide notice to homeless persons in the Santa Ana River riverbed informing such persons that they need to move their personal property or the County will impound it. This notice must be provided at least twenty-four hours before seizing homeless persons’ property from any portion of the Riverbed.

2. As to any property seized in the Santa Ana River riverbed—absent an objectively reasonable belief that the property is abandoned or presents an immediate threat to public health or safety, or is evidence of a crime, or contraband—the County must maintain seized property in a secure location for a period of not less than 90 days before destruction of the property. The property must be available for retrieval during regular business hours on a daily basis without prior appointment. The County must provide transit to the location where property is stored if the location is not within one mile of the place the items were taken from. All items must be stored in an organized fashion.

3. Essential items including tents, tarps, blankets, sleeping bags, identification and medical papers must be stored within one mile of the place where they were seized, and be available for retrieval by its rightful owner during regular business hours on a daily basis without prior appointment.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.