Caltrans Sued by Civil Rights Groups Over Homeless Camp Raids

Similar cases that were filed in 1996 and 2006 were settled, and the confiscation of homeless people's belongings temporarily ceased.

(Mike Koozmin/SF Examiner)

A lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other civil rights groups on Tuesday against Caltrans, the state agency responsible for highway, bridge, and rail transportation planning, construction, and maintenance.

The claim: that Caltrans is violating the constitutional human rights of homeless populations by raiding and removing their belongings from camps without prior notice.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, East Bay Community Law Center, and the law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP (WilmerHale) teamed up to file the lawsuit, and are asking for a permanent injunction on these activities, as well as damages for people whose property was illegally seized.

According to a press release sent out Tuesday, the raids are carried out by Caltrans workers, occasionally with the assistance of California Highway Patrol (CHP). Trash compactor trucks are used to dispose of tents, shopping carts and other belongings. Individual plaintiffs have apparently lost important and necessary items, including family heirlooms, tents, sleeping bags, warm weather clothing, mechanics’ tools, and personal documents.

James Leone, a 29-year Oakland native has been homeless since the economy collapsed in 2008. Twice during the past few years Catrans has raided his belongings. “I’ve made money helping people with their cars and doing odd jobs,” he says. “I recycle and dumpster dive. I have dreams and aspirations for my life. I don’t want to be homeless on the streets of Oakland forever. CalTrans has been a major obstacle to getting my life together; I’ve been left with only the clothes on my back. Twice I’ve lost everything I own in the world.”

“I don’t know anyone who has ever gotten their property back. Not one person. And I know several people who have tried. They’ve never gotten even a phone call back,” said Christopher Craner, a former landscaper who’s been homeless for two years.

“All people, including the homeless, have a right to the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable seizure of property, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections against the deprivation of property without due process of law,” said Elisa Della-Piana, Legal Director at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

This is not the first lawsuit of its kind to be filed against Caltrans—similar cases were filed in 1996 and 2006. In both circumstances the cases were settled, and the confiscation of homeless people’s belongings temporarily ceased.

In 2006, Caltrans launched a new policy that all homeless individuals would be notified of sweeps in their area. According to Tuesday’s lawsuit, Caltrans is now acting in violation of their own policy.

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