Sacramento, California homeless file claims over seized property

Nearly 900 homeless men and women have filed claims for reimbursement for bicycles, tents and other items seized by city police during raids of illegal campsites in recent years.

The claims are part of an unusual process to resolve a federal class-action lawsuit charging that police stomped on the constitutional rights of homeless people by grabbing their belongings and throwing them away without giving the owners a chance to get them back.

As of Wednesday, 864 people had filed claims for property seized by Sacramento police since 2005, said Mark Merin, a Sacramento attorney representing the homeless. Merin said he expects more claims to be filed before the deadline at the end of the day today.

Plaintiffs whose claims are approved will receive payments of either $400 or $750, depending upon the value of the property.

The city could be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to homeless people, depending upon how many claims are deemed valid, plus attorney fees for four years of work and a three-week trial.

Senior Deputy City Attorney Chance Trimm said, however, that the city will fight any claims that appear to be bogus, and might go to court to fight paying attorney's fees.

"Some of these claims are missing key information," such as birth dates and Social Security numbers, and will likely be thrown out, Trimm said. Others list campsite locations such as "the Snake Pit," and "the Island," names familiar only to homeless people and their advocates.

A professional claims administrator will make a preliminary ruling on the validity of each case.

If a dispute arises that cannot be resolved between the battling parties, a federal judge who has been appointed as a special master in the case will step in.

The process follows a federal court trial last year in which a jury found that the city failed to properly notify homeless people about how to retrieve their possessions, and failed to implement policies for handling that property.

The trial featured a parade of homeless and formerly homeless people, some of whom testified tearfully about losing "survival gear," including tents and lanterns, as well as personal items from family photographs to prescription medications.

The city's star witness was a police officer fondly known as "Batman" among homeless men and women. He testified that he and his partners are obligated to enforce a city ordinance that bans camping in undesignated areas for more than 24 hours.

Police routinely must roust campers in response to complaints, he said, and then clean up the messes left behind.

During the past few months, homeless people have been filling out claim forms handed out at shelters, soup kitchens and campsites. The form asks for identifying information, including a Social Security number, dates of when property was seized, location and information about whether city employees were responsible for taking the items. It also asks about the homeless person's efforts to recover the property.

Sacramento County originally was part of the civil lawsuit but settled its portion in 2009 with a payment of $488,000 and the development of elaborate policies for tagging and storing items seized during sweeps of illegal campsites.

About 300 people filed claims against the county, which paid out about $200,000 to plaintiffs. Trimm said he believes that fewer claims will be validated against city officers because they did a good job of marking and storing property seized at homeless campsites. In many cases, no one claimed the items, he said.

Trimm said it might take months to sort out which claims against the city are valid. Merin said he hoped checks would be issued this summer.

"We're not going to spend hours and hours resolving each claim," said Merin. "That wouldn't make sense. I would hope that we would err on the side of generosity."