As noted by the California Supreme Court, “A Man’s Home is his Castle.” People v. Thompson (2006) 38 Cal. 4th 811, 829.
The concept of the “home” as a “castle” has a long, long history in both English and American law. As noted in the People v. Thompson case, American law has for many years provided that a person has an extremely high right of privacy in their own home. The California Supreme Court wrote that this principle is not “just some forgotten vestige of 15th century English law that allowed English peasants to assert their rights against a powerful monarchy.” Instead, this principle is dearly held, honored and cherished in American law. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution specifically provided for a very strong right of privacy in the language of the Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” The United States Supreme Court has held that “At the very core [of the Fourth Amendment] stands the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.” Silverman v. United States (1961) 365 U.S. 505, 511. In the Silverman case, law enforcement officers had placed an electronic device on a heating duct, which essentially turned the duct into a “gigantic microphone” running throughout an entire house. Because this microphone was placed without a warrant, it constituted a violation of the Fourth Amendment and the conversations heard by police officers were inadmissible evidence. Likewise, in one case the use of a “thermal imaging device” to explore the details inside a home were held improper when a search warrant wasn’t first obtained. Kyllo v. United States (2001) 533 U.S. 27, 28.
Whether or not a search warrant must first be obtained before a proper search or investigation can be made is a subject that fills many, many pages of reported legal cases. But an interesting question arises when the “home” is actually not a “home” at all – but is instead a public sidewalk.
Webster’s II New College Dictionary contains a definition for “Skid Row,” which generally designates a place where people live who are “down on their luck” (so to speak). Los Angeles apparently has an area actually known as “Skid Row.” (See the report at Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, 2011 Greater Los Angeles Homeless County Report. The report notes that nearly 34% of the homeless in this area are ages 55 and older. The report also states that 18% of the homeless are veterans). The report further states that according to HUD, an “unsheltered homeless person” is a person who resides in “A place not meant for human habitation, such as cars, parks, sidewalks, abandoned buildings, or on
Apparently several individuals were living in the Skid Row district of Los Angeles in 2011, and on several occasions they “stepped away” from their personal property, leaving it on the sidewalks, to perform tasks including eating, showering, or attending court. These persons had not abandoned their property, but City employees nevertheless seized and destroyed the property under the Los Angeles Municipal Code, which states that “no person shall leave or permit to remain any merchandise, baggage or any article of personal property upon any parkway or sidewalk.”
Nine of these individuals filed suit against the City of Los Angeles by claiming that these practices violated the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. The trial court granted an injunction that, among other things, barred the City from “Seizing property in Skid Row absent an objectively reasonable belief that it is abandoned and presents an immediate threat to public health or safety, or is evidence of a crime.” The court also ordered that unless the material posed an immediate threat to public health or safety, the City was obligated to store the property in a secure location for at least 90 days.” The case was appealed, and in September of 2012 the trial court’s ruling was affirmed.
For details of the ruling, see Lavan v. City of Los Angeles (2012) DJDAR 12545.
Constitutional rights of property and privacy are very complex, and a substantial amount of legal authority exists on these issues. The foregoing discussion only provides the most limited discussion of some of the key issues involved. Persons with questions about rights of property or privacy should consult competent legal counsel.