Broward News

Fort Lauderdale Police Again Confiscate Homeless People's Belongings

Six days after Thanksgiving and with Christmas in the air, Fort Lauderdale police this week confiscated the belongings of more than a half-dozen homeless people in downtown Fort Lauderdale adjacent to Stranahan Park, where they reside.

Among the items taken Wednesday were a woman’s family photos. Following the script from this past summer in which, as reported by New Times, a homeless man’s HIV medication was allegedly thrown in the trash by city workers, epilepsy medication was taken as well. So were one man’s medications to treat a variety of ailments, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and a bad heart.

One week to the day before last Thursday’s national day of gratitude and two days after the City Commission proclaimed November to be Homeless, Hunger and Youth Homeless Awareness Month throughout the city, those same individuals and others were threatened with possible property seizures. But for a while, the enforcement never materialized.

The property seizures had been anticipated earlier this week on Giving Tuesday, a day focused on making charitable donations, when the police honored the day’s theme by giving warnings that the property might be confiscated 24 hours later, as stipulated in a 2014 ordinance that allows authorities to seize unattended property if a written notice has been provided and attached to the property.

The property confiscations on Wednesday led to heated reactions owing to some officers’ apparent ignorance of the law they were there to enforce.

“The stuff they took didn’t even have a tag on it,” said Hiram Jackson, a 55-year-old man who has been homeless on and off for the past year. Jackson explained that the previous morning, since he’d been present when officers were tagging the belongings of others, his property had been left alone, and he’d felt secure with an officer’s promise that it wouldn’t be confiscated the following day. That promise was broken barely 24 hours later. The ordinance mandates that belongings need to be tagged 24 hours in advance of any possible confiscation.

A phone call on Wednesday afternoon to FLPD Sergeant Monica Ferrer, who’d been on the scene overseeing the property seizures in the morning, led to another promise that those whose medications had been taken could reclaim them immediately. She said they wouldn't have to wait for the next regular opening of the department’s property room, which is next Monday.
Heidi Hernandez, who arrived at the scene late Wednesday morning after having been admitted for the previous four days at Aventura Hospital for a seizure she’d suffered while visiting her daughter in Miami, spoke through tears upon finding all of her belongings gone. She’d been away when her property had been tagged and taken, while a homeless friend who’d tried to intervene on Tuesday as her property was about to be stickered was threatened with arrest for trying to protect it.

“I need my meds or I’ll go into a seizure,” said Hernandez, who, along with her prescription for the antiseizure medication Dilantin, had family photos and bags of clothing taken.

Another woman, the first in the row of homeless people residing along the park’s east side whose belongings the police approached, was actually present when police began slinging her stuff into a trailer hitched to the back of an FLPD pickup. She and others appealed to police, insisting that they were violating their own ordinance by taking belongings that weren’t unattended, and while the cops grudgingly relented by letting her retrieve some of her property, the woman, who wished to remain anonymous, still lost a few items.

Other eyewitnesses claimed that on Tuesday, while tagging belongings, police had also rummaged through some of the property, an act which could form the basis of a future lawsuit. In April, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled property seizures and disposals to be unconstitutional in a case brought by homeless individuals in Los Angeles.

“They invaded my privacy,” said John Bradham, who’s been staying at the park for nearly a year. Having heard from other witnesses that police had looked through his things before tagging them on Tuesday when he wasn’t present, the 49-year-old added, “I’m depressed about it. It’s unconstitutional. They violated my rights.”

This reporter also observed an officer harassing Bradham seemingly because the homeless man laid claim to his property, which couldn’t be taken owing to his presence.

“What’s in here?” the officer demanded as he hovered over a bundle covered with a tarp. Then, before walking off, the officer asked a silent Bradham if he could prove the property was his.

Barry Butin, a Fort Lauderdale-based criminal defense attorney and legal panel cochair of the ACLU’s Broward chapter, who said he’d come to take victims’ statements after learning on Tuesday of the possible enforcement action, chose not to comment on the likelihood of litigation. Butin interviewed over a dozen victims and eyewitnesses during the two hours he spent at the park early Wednesday afternoon.
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Jeff Weinberger