Judge hands ACLU big setback in lawsuit over homelss encampments

On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez ruled against the ACLU on two motions it had filed in its case against the city and WSDOT over the ongoing “sweeps” of unsanctioned homeless encampments.

The ACLU has moved for certification of a class of plaintiffs, essentially all homeless people living unsheltered in Seattle. It had also recently moved for a preliminary injunction to stop the city and WSDOT from further cleanups of unsanctioned encampments.

In denying the class certification, the judge found that the ACLU had failed on three points:

  • it had failed to show “commonality” among all the members of the class; it fact, it hadn’t even shown it among the small handful of named plaintiffs on the case.
  • it had failed to show “typicality,” i.e. that the hard asserted by the named plaintiffs was typical of all of the other plaintiffs (and again, it wasn’t even typical among the named plaintiffs).
  • it had failed to show that the named plaintiffs would properly represent all of the other members of the class. In depositions, two of the plaintiffs said that they wanted to stop all cleanups, and one said that she didn’t want to represent anyone other than herself.

The judge had previously denied the ACLU’s motion for a temporary restraining order, but this case is a bit of a moving target since the city and WSDOT have revised their protocols for conducting cleanups since the case was filed — and ACLU has twice amended its complaint in response. ACLU filed a new motion for a preliminary injunction after it filed its most recent amended complaint.

In order to get a preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs must show that they are likely to win on the merits of the case, they will suffer irreparable harm otherwise, the balance of harms tips in their favor, and a preliminary injunction is in the public interest.  Judge Martinez methodically walked through each step of the four-part test and concluded that the ACLU didn’t reach the bar on any of them. In particular, he walked through the merits of the ACLU’s claims that the cleanups violate the plaintiffs’ 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable seizure of property and their 14th Amendment guarantees of due process, and completely decimated them.

In his ruling, Martinez chastised the ACLU in several places for exaggerating or misrepresenting evidence. The best you could say about the ACLU’s argument was that it was able to point to a handful of incidents where the city didn’t follow its own procedures to the letter, but the judge concluded that it didn’t rise to the level of systemic deprivation of constitutional rights. Further, Martinez agreed with the city and WSDOT that they had a duty to protect residents and key infrastructure from hazards created in some unsanctioned homeless encampments.

As a preview of how Martinez view the ACLU’s case, this ruling is pretty devastating. The lack of class certification narrows the case down to the harms incurred by the named plaintiffs, and Judge Martinez has drawn a clear line in the sand on what the ACLU needs to prove in order to win its case — and a handful of incidents of inconsistent implementation won’t cut it.

There is no word yet on whether the ACLU will appeal the ruling.