Civil liberties group files FOIA request after VDOT contractor destroyed homeless encampment off I-81 near Winchester
Winchester, VA—The ACLU of Virginia has filed a Freedom of Information Act Request with the Virginia Department of Transportation seeking information about policies and practices affecting the destruction of the possessions of homeless persons who use land under the agency’s control.
The ACLU’s request comes in the wake of a January 5 incident in which a company under contract with VDOT destroyed a homeless encampment along Interstate 81 at Exit 315 near Winchester. According to news reports at least four homeless men had been using the property for months when road maintenance crews demolished the encampment.
The homeless men were not present at the time, but apparently lost tents, sleeping bags, camping gear, clothes, canned food and medication. At least one man lost his wallet, including his Social Security Card and birth certificate. The men received no advance notice that their property would be destroyed.
According to court precedents homeless persons, even while located on right-of-ways or other state property, have constitutional rights regarding their possessions.
“Federal courts have consistently ruled that homeless persons have an expectation of privacy that includes the right to be notified before their property can be seized or destroyed,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “They may be homeless, but they are still entitled to the same constitutional protections that apply to the rest of us.”
“We need to find out more about what happened. Under what authority did VDOT act? Who was harmed and what did they lose? Once we know the answers to these questions, we’ll know what the next steps, including the possibility of litigation, will be,” added Willis. “Our goal is to have VDOT compensate these men for their losses and to guarantee us that this will not happen again.”
In 1992, in Pottinger v. City of Miami, a federal court ruled that homeless people have an expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment that includes the right not to have possessions unlawfully seized from public places. Courts since have relied on the Pottinger precedent to assert the rights of homeless persons. An Alaska court recently ruled that five days notice before removal of items owned by homeless persons was too short.
The FOIA request from ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg is available at http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/20110120VDOThomelessfoia.pdf.
Contact: Kent Willis, ACLU of Virginia Executive Director, 804-644-8022