A proposed class action out of Minnesota claims police “sweeps” of Hennepin County encampments where homeless individuals live have overstepped their constitutional rights.
Filed on behalf of seven plaintiffs and non-profit Zakat, Aid and Charity Assisting Humanity (ZACAH) by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, the 51-page case alleges the police sweeps have in some instances forced homeless individuals, of which the suit says there are an estimated 3,049 in Hennepin County, from public parks and into crowded shelters amid the myriad health risks posed by the COVID-19 crisis.
Moreover, the suit claims proposed class members’ personal property was seized during the encampment sweeps without adequate notice, due process or just compensation.
“These actions violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as the Minnesota Constitution and common law,” the complaint avers.
The lawsuit—which names as defendants Hennepin County, Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson, the City of Minneapolis, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, Minneapolis Chief of Police Medaria Arradondo, the superintendent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB), the Park Police Chief, and unnamed police officers—relays that Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, in an executive order issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic, specified that “encampments should not be subject to sweeps or disbandment” given the potential risk of COVID-19 spread.
Governor Walz further specified in an April 29, 2020 order that law enforcement could “address  trespassing and exigent circumstances (i.e., those requiring immediate action to protect life, prevent injury, or preserve evidence)” in encampments, as well as “restrict, limit, or close encampment spaces,” only when the government provides sufficient alternative living arrangements, or the encampment has reached a size or status that “is a documented threat to the health, safety, or security of residents,” the case says. A May 2020 order reiterated that aside from the previously defined exceptions, homeless encampments “should not be subject to sweeps or disbandment by state and local governments,” according to the suit.
As the number of homeless individuals skyrocketed amid the coronavirus pandemic, the MPRB issued in June 2020 a resolution to provide “people currently experiencing homelessness refuge space in Minneapolis parks,” the lawsuit says. Aside from the heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 in a crowded homeless shelter, the suit emphasizes that shelters may not be an option for many homeless people given they are often full, too restrictive, lack privacy, are located far from certain essential resources, require a photo ID, cannot accommodate people with disabilities, and can trigger mental health conditions.
“Without open shelter space and adequate affordable housing, people with low or no incomes like the named Plaintiffs have nowhere else to go – they have to live outside,” the lawsuit reads.
By late June, however, MPRB employees began to “strategize” how to rescind the previous resolution that designated parks as refuge spaces for the homeless, the complaint says. On July 15, a new resolution was passed that rescinded the June resolution and outlined how encampments would be targeted for “removal,” the suit relays.
Under Resolution 2020-267, encampments were required to hold 14-day permits, restricted to certain parks, and capped at a certain number of tents, the case states. The resolutions also identified two large encampments at Powderhorn Park that allegedly “did not conform to COVID-19-related health guidance and were a purported threat to public health and human safety,” per the suit.
The following day, the MPRB, the lawsuit alleges, began enlisting the help of the Hennepin County Sheriff, as well as the state and local governments, to enforce the resolution through the permitting process by targeting encampments for sweeps during which police cleared the areas using heavy machinery and sometimes chemical irritants, such as teargas.
Per the complaint, those living in the encampments were not provided with adequate notice before being forcibly removed from their tents, and had no time to collect their personal property before the sites were bulldozed by the defendants. The suit argues that the “Notices of Transition” and “Notices to Vacate” that were allegedly served to encampment residents contained no deadlines by which the individuals had to vacate the parks, and many residents were “taken by surprise” when members of the Park Police, Minneapolis Police Department, and Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office showed up to “rid [the encampments] of people and their property.” From the lawsuit:
“Despite the lack of sufficient shelter space or affordable shelter, since July of 2020, Defendants have ‘cleared’ at least four encampments in Minneapolis parks—each time confiscating and nearly immediately destroying all of the personal property they found and displacing residents who had nowhere else to go.”
According to the suit, the defendants did not have a warrant or probable cause to seize homeless individuals’ personal property during the sweeps, nor any policy to inventory and safeguard seized property. Instead, they “simply discard and destroy it” while intimidating encampment residents with bulldozers, armed officers, chemical irritants and threats of arrest, the case alleges.
The lawsuit alleges violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Minnesota Constitution.
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