Downtown Stakeholders Push for Trial in Key Skid Row Case

Downtown business advocates want the city to go to trial to fight a ruling regarding what can be done with the property of homeless individuals. Others want the city to settle the case. 

DTLA - In April 2016, United State District Court Judge James Otero made a key ruling in the case known as “Mitchell vs. City of Los Angeles.” He issued a temporary injunction that prevented the city from seizing and destroying property in Skid Row without posting advance notice in the area. The city, Otero ruled, must store impounded belongings so people can retrieve them. It applied only to Skid Row and “adjoining areas.”

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A trial is scheduled for Feb. 5, 2019, according to the office of the City Attorney. In recent weeks, City Council committees have held a pair of hearings on the matter as Los Angeles officials ponder whether to settle the case.

Last week, approximately 80 Downtown stakeholders showed up at one of the hearings, and more than 30 people urged the city not to settle the matter and essentially preserve the status quo, which they assert has led to cluttered and sometimes impassable sidewalks, but instead to proceed to trial.

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The council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee discussed the matter mostly in closed session when it met in City Council chambers on Wednesday, Oct. 3. Before that, however, it took public testimony on the lawsuit that could shape rules on homeless property and enforcement of sidewalk cleanups.

The Mitchell case was filed in March 2016. The plaintiffs — four homeless people, along with the activist groups the Los Angeles Community Action Network and the Los Angeles Catholic Worker — argued that the city’s seizure of homeless individuals’ property, such as medicine and documents, was endangering the homeless population. The temporary injunction essentially prevents city workers and police from seizing property on Skid Row sidewalks unless notice and retrieval options are provided.

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The city is considering a trio of options: It could settle the matter so the ruling only affects Downtown; settle it so the same rules apply across the city; or take the case to trial in the effort to strike down Otero’s mandate.

More than three dozen people spoke at the committee hearing, with most representing Downtown business interests. A common refrain was that the clutter on sidewalks allowed by the temporary injunction negatively impacts local stores and the overall quality of life in the community.

Jessica Lall, president and CEO of the business advocacy and lobbying group the Central City Association, called for the city to go to trial, arguing that settling the case would only invite more lawsuits.

Lall stressed that it would be wrong to have one set of rules for Skid Row and Downtown, and a different set of rules for the rest of the city.

“We support the Constitutional protection for people, especially our most vulnerable population,” Lall testified. “This is why we believe we do not treat people in one neighborhood differently. We need to end this cycle of lawsuits that ties the city’s hands.”

General Dogon, a Skid Row resident and organizer with LACAN, disagreed. He argued against taking the case to trial, calling it a “bad idea” and charging that the city is criminalizing homelessness with its actions. Dogon said the courts have been more responsive.

“The federal courts keep it real. They’ve been consistent with upholding property rights,” Dogon said.

The City Council is reviewing the Mitchell case in the wake of a major federal ruling. Last month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, hearing a case from Boise, Idaho, ruled against the prosecution of people sleeping on sidewalks at night, unless shelter or housing is available.

Mark Loranger, president and CEO of the homeless services provider Chrysalis, which among other efforts offers storage bins for homeless individuals on Skid Row, said that it is not safe for homeless people to have large and bulky items on streets and sidewalks. He added that it also places a burden on the wider community.

“We’re concerned about elements in the Mitchell case that would remove limits on personal good storage on the public right of way, especially in Downtown,” Loranger said.

Dozens of other business owners and representatives of business improvement districts echoed those comments.

The council committee did not announce any decision regarding the matter. The office of committee chair Marqueece Harris-Dawson did not offer comment when contacted after the hearing by Los Angeles Downtown News.

Before the move to closed session, committee member José Huizar, whose 14th District includes Downtown and Skid Row, said he agreed with the constituents who want the city to take the case to trial.

“We should not perpetuate the existence of Skid Row and what exists there. We should not even have a reason to expand the boundaries of Skid Row, and we should also at the end of the day move toward a new way of handling homelessness, and this is not it,” Huizar said. “And if we are told that chances of winning don’t look good as we appeal and continue moving forward, I’m willing to take that chance.”

The committee continued the item, and it will be discussed further at an as-yet undetermined date.

The office of City Attorney Mike Feuer declined to comment on the matter as the case is pending.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2018