LAPD Skid Row Searches Found Unconstitutional
A federal judge has ruled that parolees and homeless people have 4th Amendment rights.
A federal judge has ruled that some Los Angeles police tactics in patrolling downtown are unconstitutional, raising questions about the city’s successful campaign to dramatically reduce the number of crimes and homeless people.
U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson found that officers question — and at times search — parolees and probationers without evidence that they might have committed a crime, which the judge said was unconstitutional. He ordered the LAPD to change its practices.
The Los Angeles Police Department is in the midst of a major crackdown on downtown crime, having made 6,000 arrests in the last six months and recorded a 35% drop in crime. The crackdown has corresponded with a drop in downtown’s street dwellers, from 1,800 last September to fewer than 750 last week, LAPD statistics show. The changes come at a time when the once-blighted city center is undergoing gentrification. The LAPD has vowed to stop the rampant drug dealing on and around skid row, an area in which 20% of the city’s drug arrests are made.
City officials have struggled for years to devise a policing policy for downtown that passes legal muster in its treatment of homeless people. A federal appeals court last year found the city’s anti-camping ordinance to be unconstitutional, scuttling LAPD efforts to prevent the homeless from sleeping on downtown sidewalks at night.
Some legal experts said that Pregerson’s decision had established another serious roadblock to the LAPD’s drive to clean up downtown. “It’s an important decision,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School. “It sort of resolves an argument percolating out there, that … the LAPD would have permission to stop anybody.” The ruling, she said, reaffirms “the right of the homeless not to be subjected to unwarranted, suspicionless searches. Even if they don’t have much to their name, they still have their constitutional rights.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit that Pregerson ruled on, maintained that police officers routinely stopped people and questioned them about their parole or probation status. Officers often handcuffed them and searched them without any reasonable suspicion of a crime, the organization charged in court papers.
One would think that parolees and probationers, who are on the streets only because of special dispensation (that is, they have been convicted of crimes and are serving part of their sentence outside prison but under supervised conditions) could be subject to searches as a condition of said dispensation. After all, prisoners can be searched at any time. Conversely, if police are approaching random people and asking them to prove that they’re not on such release, it would be an obvious violation of their rights.
As to the homeless, it strikes me as well within the reasonable scope of state power to keep the public space fit for decent people to occupy. Homeowners, business owners, and other legitimate occupants of an area have rights, too, and that includes being able to go to and from their property and enjoy the public square. The public sidewalks, parks, and recreation facilities are common areas created for specific uses which did not include panhandling and serving as campgrounds for winos.
If police statistics are to be believed–and I recognize that’s not a throwaway caveat–the extant policy appears to be working:
Reports of serious crimes in the LAPD’s Central Division – which includes skid row – are down 35% overall so far this year compared to the same period in 2006.
Now, perhaps crime has simply moved to surrounding areas. My guess, though, is that they’re merely taking the more dangerous elements off the streets.
via Jeralyn Merritt, who is quite pleased with the rulings.