Los Angeles asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday to allow police and city workers to seize or destroy property that homeless people leave unattended on sidewalks, saying Skid Row homeless encampments presented a public-health risk.
According to Reuters, Los Angeles has one of the nation's largest populations of homeless people, and the city's legal fight is seen as having implications for how other municipalities deal with transients.
The city had removed or destroyed property left unattended on sidewalks during cleaning drives, but eight homeless Skid Row residents sued in 2011 to stop the practice. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last year upheld a lower court ruling that found the city may not take homeless people's property under provisions of the U.S. Constitution that protect against unreasonable search and seizure and uphold the right to due process before being deprived of property.
Papers filed with the U.S. Supreme Court by attorneys for Los Angeles cited a recent tuberculosis outbreak in downtown Los Angeles in their request to overturn the appeals court ruling.
In a statement, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich said, "We have an obligation to the homeless, as well as to the other residents and businesses on Skid Row, to ensure their health through regularly cleaning Skid Row's streets and sidewalks."
"The current outbreak of tuberculosis among that most vulnerable population should serve as a stern reminder to us all of just who and what is at risk in this matter," he said.
Some 4,500 people on Skid Row are believed to have been exposed to tuberculosis in the latest outbreak, the city's petition said.
In recent years downtown Los Angeles has seen old buildings refurbished and transformed into upscale apartments and condos, and has large numbers of homeless residents who regularly pitch tents on certain alleys and on sidewalks.
The Skid Row residents who sued the city said that police and city workers took or destroyed their cherished items including medication, memorabilia, birth certificates and other important documents.
A 2011 survey found Los Angeles County had 51,000 homeless people on any given night.
The city's petition said the 9th Circuit decision had reached far beyond Los Angeles and strengthened the legal position of transients suing cities for similar reasons.
Homeless encampments in Los Angeles remain a day-to-day concern for city officials, and the city's petition came on the same day two Los Angeles police officers rescued a sleeping homeless woman from a burning tent on Skid Row, police said.
According to the Reuters report, an attorney who represented the homeless plaintiffs did not return phone calls seeking comment.