Crews from the City of Seattle and the Washington State Department of Transportation regularly clear encampments like this one.
Crews from the City of Seattle and the Washington State Department of Transportation regularly clear encampments like this one. Ansel Herz

A hearing in front of a U.S. District Court judge today could provide the first look into whether the City of Seattle may be held liable for trashing homeless people's belongings during its long-running and controversial encampment sweeps.

Today at 2:30 pm, Judge Ricardo S. Martinez will hear a request from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) barring the city from throwing away homeless people's belongings without probable cause, and a clear process for people to get their stuff back. The TRO request is part of the ACLU's lawsuit against the city and Washington State Department of Transportation in which the group argues the city and state violate homeless people's constitutional rights when they clear their encampments and throw away their belongings. The case, which seeks class action status, centers on two women experiencing homelessness who've had "critical personal belongings" seized and destroyed by the city or WSDOT, according to the ACLU.

Since filing their initial lawsuit, "the violations of rights have continued unabated," the ACLU writes in its request for a TRO.

According to the filing, WSDOT told one of the homeless plaintiffs, Brandie Osborne, to move her property from an encampment on January 26 (a week after the ACLU filed its complaint) without any prior notice. Osborne says she was told WSDOT was not required to give notice of the sweep and she had half an hour to "pack up her home and everything she owned; everything else would be considered garbage." According to the ACLU, Osborne wasn't able to move all of her belongings and isn't sure if or where her belongings were saved.

In a response filed in court, lawyers for the city write that the January 26 sweep involved only state, not city, officials and that WSDOT "substantially disputes" the allegations. The city also defends its current practices, arguing it already provides adequate notice and storage of belongings. Lawyers for the city write that encampments "often cause spikes in violent crime, drug abuse, and dangerous fires, among other harms," and that Seattle's current rules for encampment sweeps "are already among the most compassionate and respectful in Washington and of any major city in the United States."

In its own counter to the city's argument, the ACLU disputes the claim that city officials consistently store homeless people's belongings and give them a way to get those belongings back. According to the ACLU, city records show that from January 2015 through early April 2016, the city participated in 733 encampment sweeps but only inventoried and stored belongings 55 times.

If granted, the TRO wouldn't stop all encampment sweeps but would restrict the city and WSDOT's ability to trash people's belongings without a robust process for notifying them and storing these belongings. The ACLU asks the court to stop the city and WSDOT from "seizing and summarily destroying homeless people’s property without probable cause and constitutionally adequate notice," but not to stop them from "collecting actual garbage or waste on public property."

Exactly how the city goes about clearing homeless encampments and throwing away or storing people's belongings in the process has been at the center of controversy for years. After criticism, the city recently released new rules for that process. The ACLU has been mostly quiet on those rules since, but doesn't hold back in its arguments to the court.

"These rules provide no improvement (and in many ways are worse than) the current guidelines," the ACLU writes.

The new rules would allow the city to immediately remove any "immediate hazard encampments," defined as areas where people are at risk of injury or death, or create a risk of injury or death to others. The ACLU argues that's too broad and would "enable the city to sweep virtually any encampment" without notice to the people living there. The rules, the ACLU writes, would "do nothing" to deal with the violations they say are "inherent" in sweeps. The city defends the new rules as an improvement on existing protocols. (The city's lawyers have also gotten a little smug about it, arguing that the ACLU should take its complaints about the rules to the public comment process instead of the courts. If you've been following the debate, this section of the ACLU's request is really worth reading. They don't hold back. It starts on page 7.)

To get a TRO, the ACLU of Washington must show they are likely to succeed in their case, and that the homeless people they represent are likely to "suffer irreparable harm" without a TRO. That means today's hearing could provide the first glimpse into just how strong or weak a judge believes the ACLU's case against the city and state is. The hearing starts at 2:30 pm. I'll be posting updates on Twitter.

This post was updated after the time for the scheduled hearing was changed.