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L.A. may suspend new law on homeless encampments

By ELIZABETH HSING-HUEI CHOU

City News Service

LOS ANGELES — City Council members said they will consider suspending a recently adopted ordinance that makes it easier and faster for the city to seize transients’ belongings and dismantle homeless encampments.

The council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee, which met Aug. 12 to consider potential amendments to the ordinance, backed a motion by Councilman Gil Cedillo asking city staffers to report back on potentially suspending the ordinance.

The measure shortens the notice period from 72 hours to 24 hours before belongings on sidewalks and other public areas can be confiscated, and imposes a misdemeanor penalty for non-compliance.

Cedillo, who voted against the ordinance in June, told fellow committee members that the city is “putting the cart before the horse” with the new law because there are not enough storage facilities where the homeless can put their belongings, and other issues addressing homelessness have yet to be worked out.

The committee also instructed city staffers to report back on proposed amendments to the law that could eliminate the misdemeanor penalty, require that voluntary storage be in close proximity before property could be seized, clarify how the law would treat attended and unattended property and change the types of property that can be confiscated.

The panel’s actions come as attorneys for the Los Angeles Community Action Network — a Skid Row-based organization that advocates for low-income and homeless people — said the city could face legal challenges if its leaders fail to reconsider or rescind the new ordinance.

The group’s attorneys sent a 17-page letter to city officials Aug. 11 detailing their concerns about the ordinance, which they say is “unconstitutional” and contains the “same legal defects” as an earlier law that was struck down in court.

“We urge you to withdraw the ordinance and avoid subjecting the city to ongoing legal liability,” attorneys from Munger, Tolles & Olson and Public Counsel wrote.

Network Co-Director Beck Dennison said in an email to City News Service that the group might consider legal action on the ordinance — and also on a similar law that affects property left in city parks — “if or when they are applied in an unconstitutional manner, but we are not at that point yet.”

She said the purpose of the letter was to discuss “our legal assertion that the ordinance is unconstitutional, and none of the proposed amendments correct that fact.”

The letter was addressed to council members Jose Huizar and Marqueece Harris-Dawson, co-chairs of the Homelessness and Poverty Committee.

Huizar did not respond to requests for comment.

Harris-Dawson released a statement saying that he is “having a hard time solely addressing people’s belongings when we urgently need to develop a strategy to address important issues such as shelters, transitional housing, substance abuse and mental health issues.”

“As long as we’re not housing people, nothing else we do is right,” he said.

Rob Wilcox, spokesman for City Attorney Mike Feuer, said the office is “currently analyzing the letter.”

The ordinance, and another that affects the seizure of property in city parks and beaches, was adopted by the City Council in June and went into effect in July without Mayor Eric Garcetti’s signature.

Community Action Network activists urged Garcetti to veto the ordinances, but the mayor responded that he had assurances from the City Council that it would amend the measures. He also said he instructed city officials to suspend enforcement of the laws until the amendments are in place.

The activists maintain that Garcetti has limited authority to put enforcement on hold, and attorneys said the proposed amendments now being considered will not sufficiently improve the ordinance.

The attorneys contend the law will lead to the “unreasonable” seizure of personal belongings and a “proposed amendment removing specific reference in the definition of ‘Personal Property’ to ‘personal items such as luggage, backpacks, clothing, documents and medication, and household items’ will have absolutely no legal effect.”

“Such items will still constitute ‘tangible property’ and personal property as that term is understood in our laws,” the attorneys wrote, adding that the ordinance would also allow “the confiscation of medication and critical documents.”

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