Homelessness

Judge Trashes City of Miami Motion to Dismiss Lawsuit Over Homeless Encampment Sweeps

City of Miami workers at the site of a homeless encampment in Overtown on the morning of May 13, 2020
City of Miami workers at the site of a homeless encampment in Overtown on the morning of May 13, 2020 New Times file photo by Rachel Gilmer
A federal lawsuit against the City of Miami over its alleged practice of seizing and destroying homeless people's property is one step closer to trial after a federal judge denied the city's motion to dismiss.

The lawsuit was filed by four Miami residents — LaToyla Cooper-Levy, Phillip Sylverin, Sherman Rivers, and Joseph Simmons — who claim the city indiscriminately discarded their personal items while clearing homeless encampments where they were living.

"The city conducts sweeps without sufficient notice and in a manner that prevents plaintiffs from securing their personal property to avoid destruction," the lawsuit alleges. "The intentional taking and destruction of plaintiffs' personal property violates plaintiffs' constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizures and their right to due process."

In its motion to dismiss, the city claimed the plaintiffs described isolated incidents and failed to establish that Miami has a widespread practice of disrespecting homeless people's property, a showing required for the city to be held liable.

But U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom struck down those claims in her December 6 ruling.

"The complaint sufficiently alleges that the city fails to provide adequate notice of sweeps, the city fails to sort or secure specific items, and fails to determine whether unattended property belongs to a particular homeless individual," the judge wrote.

Legal Services of Greater Miami, Southern Legal Counsel, and the ACLU of Florida had filed the lawsuit in June on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Jeffrey Hearne, director of litigation at Legal Services of Greater Miami, says the plaintiffs may now have their day in court to tell their stories and show how the city is disregarding the rights of the homeless.

"The sweeps are still happening," Hearne tells New Times. "We still have stories of individuals who say their property is being swept up and taken. That's what we are trying to get changed."

According to the lawsuit, the city "began an aggressive plan to clear homeless encampments" in early 2021. This came after a federal appeals court in 2019 terminated the 1998 Pottinger Agreement, a landmark consent decree designed to curb the city's practice of tossing out homeless people's personal property and arresting homeless Miamians for sleeping in public places.

"Once the district court terminated the Pottinger consent decree in February 2019, the city was no longer... under court oversight as to how it treats the homeless," the lawsuit reads. "In April 2021, the city commission enacted a resolution directing the city manager to facilitate bi-weekly cleanings of homeless encampments."

During a sweep of an encampment located between NW 17th Street and NW Seventh Avenue in the spring of 2021, the lawsuit alleges, Cooper-Levy lost her passport, social security card, tent, phone, and an urn holding her mother's ashes. Cooper-Levy's work uniform was also taken, which the lawsuit says led to her losing her job because she could not buy a new one. 

When city staff arrived at Sylverin's encampment on NW 11th Street near the I-95 bridge in August 2021, the lawsuit asserts Sylverin, who relies on a wheelchair for mobility, was given only a few minutes to move his belongings.

"City employees used a crane to place his personal property into a dump truck including his tent, documents, furniture, and family photos," the complaint alleges.

Sylverin claims his pet cat was inside the tent when the city placed it in the dump truck and may have been injured or killed.

Rivers, who has been homeless for 30 years, was at work when city staff arrived at the same encampment as Sylverin's, the lawsuit states. Rivers returned to find all of his personal property gone, including his birth certificate, public benefits cards, prescription medications, and $60 in change, according to the complaint.

"[Rivers'] property was readily recognizable as property of a homeless person, and it was organized in a way indicating it has not been abandoned," the lawsuit alleges.

The complaint says Simmons was left with nothing but the clothes he was wearing after the city conducted its sweep of the encampment where he, Sylverin, and Rivers lived. Simmons is currently homeless and remains fearful that the city will toss out his belongings without notice again.

The lawsuit seeks compensation for lost property and emotional damages along with an injunction "against any future confiscation and destruction of a person’s property without a lawful justification."

"The plaintiffs in our case hope to bring about change so the city of Miami does not automatically seize and destroy property, individuals are given proper notice, the property is stored, and they are given the opportunity to recover it if it is taken by the city," Hearne tells New Times.

In its motion to dismiss, the city claimed that it has written policies in place to ensure homeless Miamians receive notice of encampment clearing projects and are able to pick up belongings collected by the city. According to the city, the plaintiffs cited incidents that were isolated deviations from the city policies and did not rise to the kind of "persistent and widespread" practice that would trigger municipal liability for a violation of civil rights.

The city also claimed the plaintiffs were trying to rehash claims from the court case over the termination of the landmark Pottinger deal.

Judge Bloom noted, however, that the lawsuit describes in detail how the city allegedly falls short of its own written policies and fails to sort through homeless people's belongings when clearing an encampment.

The lawsuit argued that between January 2021 and April 2022, the city produced only two inventory invoices and made only one attempt to notify a homeless person of property being held by the city in connection with encampment cleanups.

The judge said that those stats give rise to the "reasonable inference that homeless individuals’ due process rights to notice are not being observed."

A key issue in the litigation centers around whether the city can show that the area where the plaintiffs resided was contaminated or posed a health risk. In the lawsuit and in past cases over its encampment clearing practices, Miami has consistently argued that workers were unable to sort through or collect belongings because the sites were contaminated with excrement or drug paraphernalia. Judge Bloom noted that it's unclear at this stage whether the argument holds water in the current case, and that it's a factual matter to be resolved at trial.
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Naomi Feinstein is a fellow at Miami New Times. She spent the last year in New York City getting her master’s degree at the Columbia School of Journalism. She is also a proud alum of the University of Miami.
Contact: Naomi Feinstein

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