RENO — A lawyer for a homeless Reno man has filed a civil rights lawsuit accusing sheriff’s deputies of routinely seizing and destroying homeless people’s property without prior notice or due process.
Plaintifff Robert Wynters said his property was taken three times since September, twice while looking for work after tucking his bedding and clothes beneath a bridge where he lives along the Truckee River.
The lawsuit characterizes the warrantless seizures as the “criminalization of homelessness” and seeks unspecified damages from Washoe County and a court order halting the practice.
It cites numerous cases where judges have struck down as unconstitutional similar policies in Miami, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Fresno, California.
“Driven by business interests, or not-in-my-backyard attitudes, the ultimate goal of such measures is often to remove the visible effects of homelessness and poverty from downtowns and tourist destinations,” said the lawsuit filed by attorney Terri Keyser-Cooper on March 24 in U.S. District Court.
“The intent is clear: Destroy what little the homeless have in this world as a means of forcing them out of the county,” she wrote.
Deputy District Attorney Michael Large said his office is investigating Wynters’ claims.
“Contrary to Ms. Keyser-Cooper’s statement, Washoe County does not target our homeless residents through our parks and open space cleanup,” he said.
Wynters, 42, has been homeless and unemployed since October 2013. He previously worked as a grocery stocker, casino cook and maintenance worker.
He occasionally does odd jobs and receives food stamps, but has no steady income or assets. He began living under the bridge with others after being turned away from overcrowded shelters downtown, the lawsuit said.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated Reno’s homeless population at 769 people in 2014 — 349 in emergency shelters, 323 in transitional housing and 97 “unsheltered.”
Wynters claims Deputy Wendell Scott threatened to arrest him and other homeless near the bridge and warned he would confiscate their property if they left it alone. Wynters said he returned from a job search to find his bicycle, clothes and personal papers missing. He said the same thing happened in November and mid-February.
Wynters said he went to the sheriff’s office the next day to retrieve his property but was told it had been destroyed.
“I do not have much — a couple of pairs of pants, a few shirts, socks and underwear, items for personal hygiene, but I need all of these things,” he said. “I desperately need that bike to look for work.”
Sheriff’s spokesman Bob Harmon referred queries about the matter to the district attorney’s office.
Large said county officials typically post signs 24 hours before a river sweep warning people to remove items from public areas.
“Items, garbage and refuge that remain in the parks and open spaces during the cleanups are disposed of accordingly,” he said.
The county takes pride in its open spaces and works hard to maintain the areas for the entire community and also is sympathetic to the plight of the homeless’ and provides social programs to assist them, he said.
Wynters said he carefully safeguards his property, hiding it so it won’t be easily found or in anyone’s way.
“It does not look like ‘trash’ or ‘junk.’ It looks like precisely what it is — personal property,” the lawsuit said.
Keyser-Cooper said the Fourth Amendment prohibits the seizure of property simply because it’s in a public place. She said it doesn’t matter if the owner is homeless or if the property has little value.
“Otherwise people who walk away from their parked cars, tied up bicycles or pets or whatever, would be in danger of having their property destroyed,” she said.