The scene during an encampment sweep in SODO.
The scene during an encampment sweep in SODO. HG

Seattle will not immediately have to change its practice of sweeping homeless encampments and seizing homeless people's belongings. A federal judge has denied a motion by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington for a temporary injunction on that seizure of property.

"The Court is not convinced the evidence cited by Plaintiffs evinces the City’s engagement in a persistent and widespread practice of summarily destroying the property of unhoused persons," U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo S. Martinez wrote in his order, issued yesterday. It was the second time the ACLU failed to secure a temporary injunction against the sweeps.

The ACLU sued the city and the Washington State Department of Transportation earlier this year. Their case claims the city and state take people's belongings without sufficient notice and fail to offer a good process for people to get their stuff back. The ACLU represents several people who have been or are currently homeless and argues the sweeps violate their fourth and fourteenth amendment rights. The ACLU says the loss of belongings, including medications and IDs, can be devastating for people living outside. In documents filed in the suit, the ACLU writes about people who couldn't work after losing their belongings. According to their filings, one person "fell into a diabetic coma after [workers at a sweep] destroyed his insulin." Another relapsed after losing methadone, according to the filings.

In response, the city and state have defended their policies, saying they offer 72 hours' notice of a sweep, outreach efforts, and storage of unclaimed belongings. Lawyers for the city and state argued a halt on seizing property could stop them from cleaning camps that are safety or health hazards.

Judge Martinez wrote in his order this week that the ACLU failed to show that the city is engaging in a pattern of behavior that is causing irreparable harm.

Under scrutiny from advocates for people experiencing homelessness, the city has promised for months to improve its sweeps protocols. The ACLU argues that, even with improved protocols, the city doesn't always follow its own rules. "It’s a story of inconsistent and unpredictable processes depriving people of essential property," Todd Williams, an attorney for a private firm working with the ACLU on the case, told the judge last month.

Williams said city records showed that 35 percent of encampments were swept with no notice and half of them resulted in no storage of belongings. The judge wasn't convinced by those numbers. That data "does not automatically indicate the city summarily destroys property," Martinez wrote, because some belongings that are not stored may be abandoned. In response to photos and videos showing crews trashing tents and other materials at encampments, Martinez said the ACLU failed to provide provide "sufficient context to determine at what stage in the city’s cleanup process these photographs and videos were taken."

In the order, the judge also refused to grant the case class action status, as the ACLU had requested.