When is a shopping cart personal property?

In 2019, City of Santa Barbara employees collected 20 shopping carts across the city, which rose to 538 in 2020, reflecting the worsening homelessness crisis in Santa Barbara County.

In response, the city council recently adopted and approved the adoption of a shopping basket ordinance, which came into effect on March 16, 2021. One of the justifications for the adoption of the ordinance was the finding that “abandoned” shopping carts “contribute to the perception of community scourge and a reduction in property values ​​in neighborhoods where they tend to accumulate. The new ordinance places the primary responsibility for the proper management and securing of shopping carts on the business owner of the shopping cart.

The new ordinance will allow city police officers and park and recreation park rangers to seize carts “unattended” if there is no owner ID affixed to a cart. If a cart is not collected by its owner within 30 days, after the owner has received notice of seizure and impoundment, or if the owner of the cart cannot be determined, the cart may be sold. or destroyed by the city within 30 days of the truck being seized and impounded.

While the ordinance does not specifically target the homeless, the seizure of the “unattended” homeless carts containing their personal belongings is inevitable and raises constitutional issues.

First, the ordinance does not contain any provision on what happens to personal effects stored in an “unattended” cart after their seizure. Business owners have 30 days after notice of seizure of a cart to retrieve it before it can be sold or destroyed. There is no similar provision in the ordinance protecting personal property inside the cart when it is seized.

Second, the ordinance “also allows the City to retrieve” unattended “carts immediately when they are in a location that could interfere with emergency services or when the” unattended “cart does not identify the owner. of the cart as required. This language is annoying because it does not describe these locations with any specificity. The vagueness of the order does not give a homeless person using a shopping cart sufficient notice of the places where they are not allowed to leave their shopping carts “unattended” when shopping or doing other things. business.

Because there is no clear distinction between an abandoned or unattended shopping cart and the personal property it contains, the seizure and destruction of such property is subject to the subjective opinion of the authorities and to abuse of the ownership rights of the owner of the goods contained in the cart that may be seized.

By not clarifying these terms and the rights of the owner of the property inside a cart that is determined to be “abandoned”, the ordinance is likely to be applied in an arbitrary, discriminatory and inconsistent manner by the city. . The other problem is the unconstitutional destruction of the precious and irreplaceable assets of our homeless neighbors.

“Unguarded” assets are distinct from truly “abandoned” assets and enjoy constitutional protections. The Ninth Circuit pointed out that before a city can sell or destroy a person’s property, “whether the property in question is an Escalade or a [tent], a Cadillac or a cart ”, the owner of this property is entitled to“ notice and the opportunity to be heard ”. (Lavan v. City of Los Angeles, 639 F. 3d 1022, 1032 (9th Cir. 2012).)

The Abandoned Shopping Carts Ordinance should clarify the difference between “abandoned” and “unattended” goods. The contents of a shopping cart are also separate from the cart itself. If there is property in an “unattended” cart rather than an “abandoned” cart, the ordinance must provide a protocol that gives the property owner “notice and a reasonable opportunity” to retrieve their belongings. before the city summarily destroys it.

In addition, the ordinance must adequately describe the “places” where a homeless person is not allowed to park his cart, without the risk of it being arbitrarily seized because the city decides ad hoc that a “unattended” cart “could hamper emergency situations. services.”

These constitutional flaws in the ordinance must be corrected before the enforcement of the ordinance begins.

The city must show leadership in finding viable solutions to the fallout from the homelessness crisis. One solution that would mitigate the proliferation of shopping carts on the streets is to provide storage facilities and lockers for homeless people who have nowhere to keep their belongings. By providing storage facilities for a homeless person to safely preserve their property, fewer shopping carts would be used for this purpose, and the city would achieve its goal of minimizing “the perception of community plague and a reduction in the value of properties in neighborhoods where [shopping carts] tend to accumulate ”in a considerate and constitutional manner.

The 2019-2020 grand jury report on homelessness in Santa Barbara said it was time for the city to embrace “a new vision.” The real solution to the nuisance of “abandoned” shopping carts in our streets and sidewalks is to house the homeless. “Housing First” has proven to be the most effective way to address the homelessness crisis.

Joseph Biko Doherty is president of the Popular justice project, and Robert Landheer chairs the Social Justice Committee.

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Peggy P. Gilmore