The ruling is an important reminder that people who are homeless do have constitutional rights, says the American Civil Liberties Union of Washingtons Doug Honig.
"The ruling is an important reminder that people who are homeless do have constitutional rights," says the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington's Doug Honig. Ansel Herz

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Seattle isn't the only place in Washington State where homeless people are having their encampments cleared and their belongings trashed. After a federal court ruling this month, six homeless people affected by sweeps in Clark County will receive a total of $85,000 in damages and the county is pledging to change the way it handles homeless encampments.

Earlier this month the federal court judge, Robert J. Bryan, ruled in Tacoma that Clark County violated the six people's rights when county workers swept their camps between 2012 and 2014 and threw out their belongings. Among the trashed items, according to the Associated Press, were tents, stoves, medication, documents, and photographs.

This week, the Clark County Council approved a settlement agreement that includes $165,000 for attorneys' fees and $85,000 for the six homeless people, who were the plaintiffs in the suit, The Columbian reports.

The settlement will also require the county to change the way it handles homeless people's belongings. Past Clark County policy "allowed work crews to clean abandoned camps immediately or else give residents an hour’s notice," according to The Columbian. "That didn’t always happen, however, with some plaintiffs reporting they’d only briefly left their belongings and returned to find work crews throwing them out." (Sound familiar?)

County council members haven now proposed stricter limits, including requiring 48 hours' notice and storage of belongings marked with a person's name. Those new rules now have to be approved by a district court judge.

Doug Honig, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, told The Stranger earlier this month that the ruling in this case should send a message to Seattle officials that "government agencies cannot simply assume that homeless people’s property in places they are camping is 'abandoned.'"

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"The government can’t summarily seize and dispose of the property," Honig said. "That violates the 4th Amendment because it is an unreasonable seizure of property, and it violates 14th Amendment’s right to due process because it deprives people of property without notice or opportunity to be heard before the property is destroyed."

While the City of Seattle says it offers people advance notice of encampment sweeps and stores certain belongings, the process has proven deeply flawed. Local advocates including the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services are now working with Seattle City Council members on legislation that would significantly limit the cases in which homeless people can be forced to leave where they are camping or their belongings can be taken. That legislation includes a $250 fine paid to the affected person any time the city violates the law. (The council has not yet approved the legislation but continues to discuss and tweak it, over objections from Mayor Ed Murray.)

"The ruling is an important reminder that people who are homeless do have constitutional rights," Honig said, "and that Seattle or any other city can get sued when it violates their rights."

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