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Housing and Homelessness

City Of LA Can't Discard 'Bulky' Possessions Of Unhoused People

People hand an ottoman over to a man wearing a face mask with sanitation trucks in the background.
Activists and workers help a person experiencing homelessness move his possessions so they are not removed during a sweep in Harbor City in January.
(Patrick T. Fallon
AFP via Getty Images)
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Beds, couches and other bulky items can't be confiscated from the sidewalks of Los Angeles under a ruling by a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

At issue is a city ordinance that strictly limits what individuals can store in public areas. A provision allows L.A. police and sanitation workers to seize and discard — without notice — any item too large to fit into a 60-gallon container. One key exception: items used as shelter.

Unhoused people and their advocates sued in 2019, claiming the policy violates 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable seizures.

U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer agreed last April, saying the size of the item wasn’t enough to warrant removal. And now, this week, two of the three judges hearing the appeal also agreed.

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U.S. Circuit Judge Michelle T. Friedland and U.S. District Judge David A. Ezra cited a ruling in a previous case that barred L.A. from summarily destroying homeless people's property in public spaces.

"We agree with the district court that Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on their claim that this provision, on its face, violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable seizures," they wrote in the opinion released Thursday.

The judge who disagreed, U.S Circuit Judge Mark J. Bennett, said that removing bulky items is lawful. He suggested that portion of the provision should be separated from disposal of property and reviewed separately.

The majority did say the city is free to draft a lawful version of the Bulky Items Provision. Which, according to the ruling, states:

No Person shall Store any Bulky Item in a Public Area. Without prior notice, the City may remove and may discard any Bulky Item, whether Attended or Unattended, Stored in a Public Area unless the Bulky Item is designed to be used as a shelter. For any Bulky Item that is designed to be used as a shelter but does not constitute a Tent as defined in Subsection 2(q), with pre-removal notice as specified in Subsection 4(a), the City may remove and discard the Bulky Item, whether Attended or Unattended. If the Bulky Item violates Subsection 3(d)–(h) herein, even if it is designed to be used as a shelter, without prior notice, the City may remove and discard the Bulky Item, whether Attended or Unattended. L.A., Cal., Mun. Code § 56.11(3)(i) (2016).

“Bulky Items” are defined as, any item "with the exception of a constructed tent":

  • operational bicycle or operational walker
  • crutch or wheelchair that is too large to fit into a 60-gallon container
  • including, but not limited to, a shed, structure, mattress, couch, chair, other furniture or appliance.

The City Attorney's office says it's reviewing its options.

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