Protesters chanted stop the sweeps as city and state crews cleared a homeless encampment known as The Jungle in October.
Protesters chanted "stop the sweeps" as city and state crews cleared a homeless encampment known as The Jungle in October. HG

After a hearing Monday in which the judge was openly skeptical of their case, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington has lost its first effort to change the way the city and state clear homeless encampments and trash homeless people's belongings in the process.

U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo S. Martinez issued a written ruling today denying the ACLU's request for a temporary restraining order restricting the ability of the City of Seattle and Washington State Department of Transportation to trash people's belongings without a robust process for notifying them and storing these belongings.

The restraining order request was part of an ongoing lawsuit over the city's sweeps of homeless encampments. The ACLU has argued that by not doing a good enough job storing homeless people's personal belongings after sweeps, the city and state are violating their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

In his decision today, Martinez wrote that the ACLU failed to prove that allowing the city to continue sweeping homeless encampments as it has been doing would cause irreparable harm. While he emphasized that his decision is "preliminary," the judge also expressed skepticism about the ACLU's claims that the city and WSDOT are violating homeless people's constitutional rights.

"While sympathetic to the circumstances in which these Plaintiffs find themselves," Martinez wrote, "the Court ultimately concludes that on this record Plaintiffs have not satisfied their burden to show a high likelihood of success on the merits of their constitutional claims at this time."

After the hearing Monday, Todd Williams, a lawyer who argued on behalf of the ACLU and the homeless plaintiffs, said the ACLU would continue the lawsuit regardless of the outcome on the restraining order.

In arguments to the court, the city and WSDOT have defended their existing practices for clearing encampments, promising they store people's belongings and offer a way to get those belongings back.

The ACLU and other advocacy groups have disputed those claims, arguing that not only are the city's policies for clearing encampments insufficient but that the city and state often don't follow their own policies in the first place. According to the ACLU, city records show that from January 2015 through early April 2016, the city participated in 733 encampment sweeps but only stored belongings 55 times

"Even if rules were perfectly constitutional," Williams told the court Monday, "it's not clear the city and state will actually follow those rules."

Matthew Segal, a lawyer representing the city, disputed the ACLU's numbers in court Monday.

"The City of Seattle is not a recalcitrant city. The city is not denying… that persons have rights to property," Segal told the judge. "We’re not saying that just because you’re trespassing, you have absolutely no rights. We’re saying we’re trying to balance the important issues the city must undertake and balance every day." (Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes and the mayor's counsel, Ian Warner, were in the courtroom but didn't argue before the judge.)

Judge Martinez was openly friendly to the city's case in court, prefacing one question to the city about its sweeps policies with, "I know you're trying to address the problem and come up with rules and regulations that would make sense for everyone." At another point, he said of people camping near roadways, "When I drive in town... I've seen people doing things that might very well put them in danger and put traveling motorists in danger as well."

During discussion of the ACLU's argument, Martinez questioned how realistic it is to expect city and state workers to be able to differentiate between homeless people's personal belongings and trash. Martinez told Williams that homeless people who are "suffering mental illness [and] drug use" could be "commingling" their personal belongings and trash. "And you want to put that responsibility [for separating trash and important belongings] on the defendants here?" the judge asked.

While today's decision affects only the ACLU's request for a temporary restraining order and the case will continue, it is also a sign of just how difficult this case will be for the ACLU to win. A date has not yet been set for the next hearing in the case.

UPDATE: Mayor Ed Murray released a statement this afternoon praising "the court’s careful consideration" and implying the ACLU is trying to stop the city from addressing health and safety concerns. "Despite efforts to stop the city from addressing public health and safety threats that exist in and around some unauthorized encampments," Murray said, "under today's ruling, the city will continue to address this crisis humanely while maintaining health and safety on our sidewalks, streets and in our parks."