DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Nearly two years after a U.S. District Court judge issued an injunction barring the city from seizing and destroying abandoned property in Skid Row, city lawyers say they are still unsure what it means for enforcement.

The city lost an appeal on the local ruling in September, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Judge Philip Gutierrez’s finding that taking and destroying temporarily unattended property violates the constitutional rights of homeless individuals. 

City officials are now in settlement talks with representatives of the nine homeless people who sued the city in 2011, after their belongings were seized from the sidewalk and destroyed by public workers without notice.

So far, settlement talks haven’t yielded much progress. Jane Usher, a special assistant city attorney, said the city and Carol Sobel, a civil rights lawyer representing the nine homeless individuals, are not “seeing eye-to-eye.”

However, as talks continue, city lawyers say there is a key uncertainty in the injunction that, if resolved, could make it easier for authorities to clear items from Skid Row sidewalks. It concerns a potentially crucial distinction between “abandoned” and “unattended” property. The latter would encompass belongings left temporarily on the sidewalk by people who don’t otherwise have a private storage space.

Gutierrez said the city could seize abandoned property as long as it is stored for 90 days so individuals have the chance to retrieve their items. City officials say that in order to effectively clear the crowded sidewalks, they want permission to remove unattended items, with the caveat that they give notice and store the property for the same time period.

City Attorney Carmen Trutanich’s office is preparing a brief on the matter. It is expected to be filed this month, Usher said.

Where the city sees a blurry line on what property it can seize in order to clear the sidewalk, backers of the injunction insist the judicial system has been clear: “The courts have now said three times that property that is not abandoned cannot be taken when people leave for a short amount of time,” Sobel said.

Sobel has argued that instead of continuing to resist the injunction, the city should focus on providing resources such as public toilets to combat public health woes in the poverty-laden neighborhood. The ruling also specifically allows the city to remove items that pose immediate health and safety risks.

Some still blame the injunction for causing sidewalk pile-ups and daytime encampments that have multiplied since Gutierrez’s ruling. City leaders said the injunction led to conditions that the County Department of Public Health last year deemed a public health crisis. In the wake of the May 2012 report, the city launched quarterly comprehensive cleanings of the area during which crews disinfect sidewalks and trash health hazards such as needles and feces.  

Only a select few city workers have been authorized to deem items health or safety hazards, however, and they are not canvassing the neighborhood more than once a month, said Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Association. Since most city workers are not allowed to identify an item as a health or safety risk, most sidewalk detritus is left to linger, she said.

As part of the cleanup program, the city expanded a daytime storage facility for the homeless that is operated by the CCEA. Even after its expansion, the facility fills up every day, Lopez said. Officials opened an additional temporary storage facility on Temple Street, and while it continues to operate, it is slated for use as a Metro staging area for the Regional Connector later this year. The city is looking for another site to replace the facility, Usher said. 

The city has appealed the Ninth Circuit ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, though it is uncertain whether the petition for review will be taken. 

Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at ryan@downtownnews.com.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013