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Los Angeles asks Supreme Court to overturn ban on Skid Row seizures

Two policemen talk in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington June 18, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Two policemen talk in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington June 18, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Brandon Lowrey

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - 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.

The greater Los Angeles area 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.

"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," City Attorney Carmen Trutanich said in a statement.

"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.

Downtown Los Angeles, which in recent years has seen old high-rise buildings refurbished into upscale apartments and condos, has large numbers of homeless residents who regularly pitch tents on certain alleys and on sidewalks.

The homeless Skid Row residents who sued the city contended that police and city workers took or destroyed their medication, family memorabilia, electronic devices, birth certificates and other cherished items.

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.

An attorney who represented the homeless plaintiffs did not return calls seeking comment.

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.

A 2011 survey found Los Angeles County had 51,000 homeless people on any given night.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)

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