The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a lawsuit Dec. 19 against two as-yet unidentified Indianapolis police officers, alleging they unlawfully seized and destroyed the belongings of five homeless individuals who had been living under a railroad bridge.
Filed in the Southern Indiana District Court on behalf of five plaintiffs, the complaint claims the two officers went to the homeless camp at the intersection of South Pine and East Georgia streets in Indianapolis on the morning of Dec. 17. They are alleged to have removed the plaintiffs’ personal belongings and thrown everything away without giving prior notice or providing the opportunity for the items to be retrieved.
The ACLU of Indiana asserts the officers’ seizure and destruction of the plaintiffs’ property violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable seizure and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process.
“The plaintiffs had not abandoned their property, and there was no legal justification for officers to seize and destroy their personal property,” Ken Falk, ACLU of Indiana legal director, said in a press release issued when the lawsuit was filed last month. “Officers made no attempt to offer the plaintiffs an opportunity to reclaim their property. All the belongings were thrown away.”
Currently, the identities of the officers are unknown. The federal court on Jan. 2 granted the plaintiffs’ motion to allow for limited discovery to determine who the officers are so the complaint can be amended. If the city cannot produce the names, then the plaintiffs are requesting either the logs and reports showing the names of the IMPD officers and employees of the Department of Public Works who were present at the homeless camp on Dec. 17 or all documents with the names and photographs of the officers who were patrolling the area at South Pine and East Georgia streets during the morning of Dec. 17.
The city of Indianapolis said it could not comment on the pending lawsuit.
According to the complaint, the five plaintiffs have resided for some time underneath the railroad overpass on the “little traveled street” east of downtown Indianapolis. When the two police officers arrived, all the plaintiffs, except for Allen Hostetler, had left the area.
The officers, the complaint alleges, grabbed Hostetler’s ankles and dragged him out of his tent. In the process, they damaged his cellphone, which Hostetler uses to obtain odd jobs.
Then the officers gave Hostetler five minutes to gather his possessions. He was not able to secure all of his property, nor was he allowed to safeguard some of the property that belonged to the other plaintiffs.
After five minutes, a handful of workers who had arrived with a large white flat-bed truck began throwing the remaining items into the trailer of the truck.
“At no time did the officers or anyone else inform Mr. Hostetler of where he or the other plaintiffs could go to reclaim the property,” the complaint says. “Instead it was clear that the property was being disposed of as trash.”
Under IMPD General Order 1.21, homeless individuals must be given a written notice seven days in advance of removal of their personal property and verbal notification 24 hours prior to the cleanup of the camp. Also, the order states personal property should not be destroyed unless it creates a health hazard.
Among the items taken from the five plaintiffs were prescription medication, clothes, blankets, mattresses, heaters and tents. In addition, one plaintiff, Michael Miller, lost his birth certificate and Social Security card.
The plaintiffs claim there was no legal justification to seize and destroy their property. They are asking for a hearing and the award of damages.
“Depriving these community members of what little property they have lacks compassion and will not solve public safety concerns,” Jane Henegar, executive director of the ACLU of Indiana, said in a statement. “To address concerns regarding homelessness in Indianapolis, elected officials should look into housing alternatives rather than further displacing an already destitute community.”
The case is Allen Hostetler, Vance Briggs, Michael Miller, Angela Day, George Bishop v. John Doe 1 and John Doe 2, members of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department sued in their individual capacities, 1:18-cv-3995.•