A lawsuit claims Denver’s homeless sweeps violate the constitutional rights of people living on the streets

The city isn’t responding to the lawsuit just yet.
6 min. read

Over two days in early March, Denver police and public works crews descended on the area around Lawrence Street and Park Avenue West, across the street from the Good Samaritan House, to clear out a large encampment of homeless people. A 65-year-old man named William Pepper was among the many people who lost everything they own.

Now Pepper is one of nine named plaintiffs in a federal civil rights lawsuit that a Denver attorney hopes will turn into a class action case that puts an end to the sweeps.

Jason Flores-William filed the lawsuit against the city of Denver, Mayor Michael Hancock, Police Chief Robert White, Public Works Manager Jose Cornejo, Chief of Staff Evan Dreyer and police Commander Tony Lopez Thursday in federal district court.

Flores-Williams describes in vivid detail the humanitarian impact of the city's homeless sweeps.

"A homeless person carries their life with them: their documents, their medicines, their valued mementos and photographs of family and friends that get them through the long nights out on the streets," the lawsuit states. "It is difficult to imagine what it must feel like to be already homeless and suffering, then be forced to watch as everything you own in the world is thrown into a dump truck while you are afforded no means to contest the seizure and destruction of your property."

In legal terms, he argues that the city has violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure without a warrant, the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law and due process.

He contrasted the city's treatment of the possessions of homeless people with the legal care the government takes with cases involving white collar crime.

The city's handling of the belongings has come under criticism from a number of directions, including for using donations from the public intended to help the homeless to pay for the sweeps. The city later reversed that policy and said it would use money from the public works budget.

The Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is not involved in the lawsuit, but it also criticized the way the city handled the sweeps.

“The strategy of using law enforcement as the primary response to homelessness in Denver is obviously ineffective, doing nothing to address underlying causes," ACLU of Colorado Executive Director Nathan Woodliff-Stanley and Public Policy Director Denise Maes wrote in a letter to the mayor and City Council. "Sweeps that keep people who are homeless constantly on the move often disconnect them from services, and confiscation of property, citations and arrests, fines and fees, and prohibitions on peaceful sleep and personal shelter only make underlying problems for unhoused persons worse."

The city says it stores belongings for 60 days before disposing of them but only one person has claimed their stuff.

Flores-Williams says that isn't enough to satisfy the civil rights of homeless people.

"I don't think they're actually telling the truth," he said. But even if they are, "under the due process clause, notice has to be sufficient and adequate. You can't put up a flyer saying 'if your stuff has been seized, you can go to this place five miles away.'"

Earlier this year, homeless people and their advocates sued the city of Los Angeles for taking belongings in similar sweeps. A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction that was more narrow than the one sought by the advocates but that nonetheless limited the city to taking contraband, crime evidence, hazardous material or rat-infested property. The city then settled with the homeless plaintiffs for $822,000.

And back in 2008, the city of Fresno, California, and the California Department of Transportation paid $2.35 million to settle a class-action suit from homeless plaintiffs whose property had been seized and immediately destroyed.

John Krieger, a spokesman for the Colorado ACLU, said those cases aren't binding on the federal court in Colorado, but they could be persuasive.

The city isn't responding to the lawsuit just yet.

"The city has not been served with a lawsuit by Jason Flores-Williams or Denver Homeless Out Loud,"  Interim City Attorney Cristal DeHerrera said in an email. "Once we receive the complaint, we will evaluate the claims and respond to them.”

Flores-Williams believes the camping ban itself is unconstitutional and doesn't justify how the city deals with homeless people and their belongings. The lawsuit doesn't directly address the camping ban, but in a footnote, he says that he'd be happy to submit arguments on the constitutionality of the ban if the court wishes.

The last challenge to a camping ban in Colorado was in 2011, when the Colorado Supreme Court declined to hear the case of a Boulder man named David Madison. Since then, the Justice Department issued a letter that raised questions about the constitutionality of camping bans where there are not enough shelter beds, but there hasn't been another challenge in Colorado.

The lawsuit names nine plaintiffs: Pepper, Raymond Lyall, Garry Anderson, Thomas Peterson, Jerry Roderick Burton, Frederick Jackson, Brian Cooks, Christopher Farrell and Krystal McEvoy. Flores-Williams intends to pursue class-action status for the lawsuit, as the stories told by the named plaintiffs represent many more people.

Flores-William worked with Denver Homeless Out Loud to identify plaintiffs for the lawsuit.

And the lawsuit doesn't concern just the March sweeps, but also multiple incidents in 2015 and sweeps that occurred this summer along the Cherry Creek and South Platte River.

"The gentrification is fine, and economic development is fine," Flores-William said. "But it doesn't justify the violation of constitutional rights. This class action is going to give a lot of invisible people a voice in the justice system."

Flores-Williams said that the most important goal of the lawsuit is to stop the sweeps, though the plaintiffs could be entitled to monetary damages beyond the value of their belongings if the court finds that their civil rights were violated.

You can read the entire lawsuit here.

Assistant Editor Erica Meltzer can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter at @meltzere.

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