LOS ANGELES - In one of the first challenges to LAPD Chief William Bratton's "broken windows" policy, the ACL Union and the National Lawyers Guild filed a lawsuit in federal court today challenging the legality of the so-called "probation sweeps" that have been implemented in the skid row area.
The suit contends that the LAPD "adopted and pursued an unlawful policy, practice and custom of harassment" against the residents of the Central City East area, including the homeless in the area and residents of skid row's Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing units.
"The police have been conducting these raids under the pretext that they are looking for parole violators and absconders," said Carol Sobel, an attorney representing the National Lawyers Guild in the case. "The fact is these raids are a concerted effort to harass, intimidate and threaten a vulnerable class of people in the downtown area. To say that only parole violators have been targeted flies in the face of facts and experiences recounted by area residents, some of whose rights were violated simply for walking down the street at the wrong time."
In late November of 2002, the LAPD began a series of "probation sweeps" in the skid row area. The purpose of the sweeps was to arrest purported parole and probation violators said to be living among the residents of skid row. Over 250 LAPD officers took part in the sweeps, together with officers from the U.S. Marshals Service, the California Highway Patrol, County Probation and parole agents from the California Department of Corrections. Law enforcement officials swept through the area, raiding low-income hotels or SROs, and stopping people randomly on the streets and sidewalks of the neighborhood. In many cases, residents were subject to unlawful searches and seizures.
"I was in my room and the next thing I knew there were about fifteen police officers outside my door," said Donald Fitzgerald, resident of the Simone Hotel, an area SRO. "The police came in and just started searching my room, asking me what the conditions of my parole were."
Upon searching his room, officers found eating utensils including a fork and knife. Mr. Fitzgerald was informed that the possession of the knife was a violation of his parole. He was taken into custody on an alleged violation of his parole for possession of the eating utensil. He was held for a total of six days, though no charges were ever filed against him for any crime or violation of the terms and conditions of his parole. As a result of his detention and missing work, he was fired from his job as a grounds maintenance person.
"This is just amazing," said Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. "Chief Bratton has to realize that these people have a right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures just the same as anyone else. It makes no difference if you live in a fancy Los Feliz home, like Chief Bratton, or in a $260 dollar a month hotel on skid row. You don't waive your Fourth Amendment right because you live in an SRO."