Sanchez v. California Department of Transportation
In December 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, East Bay Community Law Center, and the law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP (WilmerHale) filed suit against the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) for violating the constitutional rights of homeless people in Berkeley, Oakland, and Emeryville, by confiscating and destroying their property in ongoing sweeps. After three years of hard-fought litigation, the plaintiffs secured a significant settlement including creation of a $1.3 million fund to compensate people whose property had been unlawfully seized; a $700,000 grant to a local nonprofit agency to fund a position to assist unhoused persons; significant reforms to Caltrans practices concerning sweeps, both locally and statewide; and attorney’s fees. The settlement was approved by the Alameda County Superior Court in July 2020.
Prior to the filing of the complaint, Caltrans routinely failed to give proper notice before raiding encampments in these cities—refusing plaintiffs an opportunity to move their belongings before destroying them in trash compactors. These practices violated the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable seizure of property, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections against the deprivation of property without due process of law.
Plaintiffs lost cherished and necessary items—including family heirlooms, irreplaceable photographs of loved ones, tents and sleeping bags, warm weather clothing, mechanics’ tools, food, camp stoves, bicycles, and personal documents.
In a series of rulings in 2017 and 2018, the court rejected the Defendants’ motions to dismiss the case or for a judgment in their favor. In June 2019, the court granted our motion to certify a class consisting of all homeless persons whose personal belongings were unreasonably taken from them by Caltrans in Berkeley, Oakland or Emeryville since December 13, 2014. Following this order, the parties entered into settlement negotiations.
In addition to the monetary benefits to the class, the settlement required Caltrans to significantly change its statewide procedures for conducting cleanup operations at encampments for a period of five years, and to implement a pilot program containing even more sweeping changes in Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville for at least four years. Under this pilot program, Caltrans is required to provide advance notice of the date and time of each sweep, adhere to specific requirements for what can and can’t be taken, store people’s belongings, and help people recover them.
Client Stories: Illegal Caltrans Sweeps of Homeless Encampments (Dec. 13, 2016)