The city destroyed personal property, including prescription medication, a walker, food, and a first aid kit.
SAN BERNARDINO – Yesterday, three unhoused people with disabilities and a grassroots mutual aid organization, represented by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, O’Melveny & Myers LLP, and Elder Law and Disability Rights Center, filed a lawsuit against the City of San Bernardino for its inhumane pattern of discrimination against unhoused residents with disabilities and violating their Fourth Amendment right to be secure from unreasonable seizures.
The lawsuit challenges San Bernardino’s widespread practice of unlawfully forcing unhoused people with disabilities to move themselves and their property from locations like Perris Hill Park, Meadowbrook Park, and Seccombe Lake Recreation Area, with reckless disregard for people’s disability needs for assistance. During these displacements, the city destroyed personal property, including essential items, medications, and mobility aids.
The city’s practice of illegally seizing and destroying personal property is not new. Last year, for instance, the city threw an individual’s life-saving medication into a garbage truck over his requests to retrieve it. A police officer told the individual to look for it at the city dump. The resulting gap in access to his medication put his life in serious peril.
In May, the city denied reasonable accommodations for plaintiff Lenka John, who uses a wheelchair and could not comply with the city’s orders to move all her property. Despite her unanswered request for help due to her disabilities, the city destroyed all the property she could not physically carry away with her.
“They destroyed my walker and my medical paperwork,” said Lenka John, who was pushed out of Meadowbrook Park earlier this year with many of her personal belongings destroyed, including essential records. “Without my medical files, I had to start the long application process for disability assistance all over again.”
The city has also confiscated and destroyed irreplaceable items and important documents, such as a birth certificate, IDs, and family photos. In one instance last year, the city destroyed a woman’s backpack that contained an urn holding the ashes of a deceased loved one. In others, the city has destroyed essential items for health and safety like a man’s wheelchair, people’s tents and blankets, clothing, and food.
“San Bernardino has a longstanding and widespread policy, practice, and custom of seizing and destroying the property of unhoused individuals,” said Kath Rogers, staff attorney at the ACLU SoCal. “The city is in clear violation of the Constitution, by carrying out these acts with neither a warrant nor the property owner’s consent.”
Further, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state disability laws, San Bernardino ignored reasonable accommodations for disabilities or even an adequate process for considering and responding to these requests.
“At least 15 people with disabilities formally requested reasonable accommodations from the city, including help from the city to move their belongings, to find an alternative place to move to, and to access medically appropriate transportation to their new location,” said Brooke Weitzman, executive director of Elder Law and Disability Rights Center. “In nearly every case, the city failed to provide any response at all.”
With nowhere to go and no relocation assistance, people in walkers and wheelchairs were forced to move themselves and what little belongings they could carry – which was difficult or impossible due to their mobility impairments or other disabilities. As a result, people lost what they could not carry.
People using walkers and wheelchairs have ended up in remote and inaccessible washes or ravines next to the park, where they are unable to properly use their mobility aids. People have been forced to retreat to areas that are unsafe and where they must crawl across the ground to get around because the terrain is steep, muddy, or otherwise inaccessible.
The suit asks for a declaratory judgment that San Bernardino has violated plaintiff’s rights under the U.S. and California Constitutions and the ADA. In addition, the suit seeks from the court a preliminary injunction to:
- cease discrimination against people with disabilities in the administration of city programs, activities, and services; and
- cease seizing and destroying all personal property of unhoused residents.