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Dispute centers on 2020 police sweeps of homeless encampments
A group of homeless plaintiffs may proceed with their federal lawsuit against Hennepin County and other defendants in connection with police sweeps of their encampments in 2020.
In a Sept. 27 order by Minnesota U.S. District Court Judge Wilhelmina Wright, four out of five counts survived a motion to dismiss the putative class action.
The surviving counts include unlawful seizure of property, violation of privacy and due process offenses, contrary to the federal and state constitutions. A state-law claim for conversion of property also survived. A count alleging substantive due process violations was dismissed.
Plaintiffs are nine individuals and ZACAH, a private nonprofit that assists residents of Minnesota on the verge of homelessness. They are seeking injunctive relief and damages, including attorney fees and punitive damages.
Defendants are Hennepin County; Sheriff David Hutchinson; Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey; Chief of Police Medaria Arradondo; Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Superintendent Al Bangoura; Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Police Chief Jason Ohotto; and unidentified John and Jane Doe police officers.
Two societal problems
As Wright observed in her order:
“This case arises from the confluence of two significant societal problems—homelessness and the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The defendants contested plaintiffs’ standing and Wright addressed that first in her opinion, waving off defendants’ challenges. Standing requires an injury in fact, a causal relationship between defendants and the alleged injury and that the injury likely would be redressed by a favorable opinion.
Defendants argued that ZACAH had not suffered an injury in fact. But ZACAH alleged that it has spent about $113,000 and 50 to 60 hours per week funding and finding hotel rooms on an emergency basis for those displaced to the camps, thus diverting it from other work to further its mission. This was adequate to prove injury in fact for Article III standing, Wright ruled.
The defendants contended that the plaintiffs’ alleged injuries were not traceable to them. But Wright said they did not dispute that officers were present at and did not obstruct the clearance of the encampments.
The defendants also argued that the plaintiffs failed to plead facts that would make municipalities liable for civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. 1983.
ZACAH’s claims were redressable, the judge found, because a favorable litigation result would mean fewer emergency hotel rooms and time spent finding them.
Failure to state a claim
The next part of the opinion was a partial win for some defendants. To sue under 42 U.S.C. 1983, the plaintiffs must allege in their complaint that policymaking officials had notice of or authorized the misconduct, the court observed. They didn’t, she ruled, so the Section 1983 claims were dismissed.
Plaintiffs did not allege any facts that, if proven, would establish that a government official received notice of any alleged constitutional violations committed by employees, Wright held. Neither did plaintiffs allege that any official authorized or was deliberately indifferent to the alleged federal constitutional violations. But civil rights claims under the state constitution survive.
Wright also said that Sheriff Hutchinson had qualified immunity against claims asserted in his individual capacity. Caselaw provided by plaintiffs did not involve sufficiently similar facts to “squarely govern” the sheriff’s conduct under the circumstances, she said.
Expectation of privacy
The court then turned to unlawful seizure of personal property under Article I, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution. To prevail on such a claim, the plaintiff must have asserted an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy.
With the unlawful erection of tents on public land and the county’s strong interest in supporting the general welfare, plaintiffs did not have an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy such that they could not be subject to an encampment sweep, said the court.
However, the count continued, the county “could have achieved its legitimate public welfare goals if they had cleared the homeless encampments without permanently depriving individual plaintiffs of their personal property by destroying that property.”
The court then turned to the plaintiffs’ procedural due process claim. The issue is whether the county provided individual plaintiffs a constitutionally adequate procedure before destroying property. That procedure should include notice, an opportunity to be heard or a pre- or post-deprivation mechanism to challenge the seizure or reclaim their property.
The county argued that Minn. Stat. § 466.02, which provides for tort claims, provides a post-deprivation remedy. But the court said that the controlling inquiry is whether the county was in a position to provide a pre-deprivation process. The county did not argue that it could not, so the court said that whether § 466.02 was adequate was not dispositive for purposes of a procedural due process claim.
Substantive due process
Count IV of the complaint asserted a substantive due process claim under the state and federal constitutions. Such a claim must consist of assertions that the government’s actions were conscience-shocking and violated a fundamental right implicit in the concept of ordered liberty, such that neither liberty nor justice would exist if they were sacrificed. Wright dismissed the count.
The fundamental rights plaintiffs asserted were to property, privacy and safety from state-created dangers. The court said the property-related claims belonged under the constitutions’ unlawful seizure provisions. Thus, the judge declined to apply substantive due process analysis.
The plaintiffs asserted a right to privacy by making general, vague assertions, Wright continued, which were insufficient. There is no legal authority that recognizes a privacy right to sleep on public land when no alternative exists, the judge said, so that claim was dismissed, eliminating Count IV from the case.
The state-law conversion claim alleges that the county’s actions were a substantial factor in depriving the individual plaintiffs of the use and possession of their property, and the court said the complaint properly pled it.
The court then kept the claim for punitive damages alive because the plaintiffs plausibly alleged violations of their rights, and whether a punitive damage claim is proper is irrelevant to a motion to dismiss.
Days after Wright’s order was filed, plaintiffs attorneys from the ACLU of Minnesota and Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid filed a joint stipulation with Hennepin County and Sheriff Hutchinson. It asked the court for more time to allow county defendants to respond to the plaintiffs’ amended complaint.
That request was granted on Oct. 4 by Magistrate Judge John F. Docherty, who ordered the county defendants to file an answer by Nov. 1.