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A federal judge has found that L.A. city officials doctored records in a case over homeless camp cleanups

Members of a cleanup crew dismantle tents at a homeless encampment in Los Angeles.
Members of a cleanup crew dismantle tents at a homeless encampment along San Vicente Boulevard outside the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus in Los Angeles in 2021.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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A federal judge has found that Los Angeles city officials altered evidence to support the city’s defense against allegations that it illegally seized and destroyed homeless people’s property.

Warning that the city will likely face sanctions following a forensic examination, U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer wrote in an order that the city had not only “altered, modified, and created documents relevant to Plaintiff’s claims” but had also failed to produce legitimately requested documents.

“Suffice it to say that the City’s credibility has been damaged significantly,” she wrote.

According to court filings, records documenting what was taken during cleanups and the legal authorization for the seizure were altered or created up to two years after the cleanup occurred and in some instances just days before they were turned over to the plaintiffs.

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In some records, the word “bulky items” was replaced by “health hazards” or “contaminated,” after Fischer had ruled the city’s law prohibiting bulky items unconstitutional.

In a court filing, Shayla R. Myers, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles who is representing the eight plaintiffs, described the changes as so significant “they rise to the level of fraud on the court.”

“In our view this isn’t just about altering or creating evidence, it’s about misleading the court and the public about the existence of safeguards to ensure the city isn’t illegally throwing away unhoused people’s belongings,” Myers said in an interview.

“They argue that they have processes in place to ensure they aren’t violating unhoused people’s rights. ... And those are the very documents that the court found to be altered or fabricated.”

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A spokesman for the Los Angeles city attorney declined to answer The Times’ questions about the case, saying the office does not comment on pending litigation. The alleged doctoring occurred during Mayor Eric Garcetti’s administration, Myers said, although delays in producing documents have continued since Karen Bass became mayor.

The plaintiffs, seven homeless people and the group Ktown for All, allege that the city violated their rights by destroying their belongings in camp cleanups in 2018 and 2019. Among the items taken, they allege, were tents, chairs, work supplies, a laptop computer, a chest containing clothes and hygiene goods, a dog kennel, medications and personal identification.

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The five-year-old lawsuit alleges that the city’s practice of seizing and disposing of property violates the 4th Amendment’s protection against illegal search and seizure and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process.

It describes property used by lead plaintiff Janet Garcia for her work as a domestic cleaner being seized and destroyed when she was not present. Other plaintiffs weren’t given time to collect personal items before they were seized, it alleges.

Ktown for All, a group that advocates for and assists homeless people, was harmed by having to expend resources replenishing the seized items, it alleges.

The plaintiffs seek compensation for the destroyed property and pain and suffering as well as a declaration that the city’s policies and practices violate the California and U.S. constitutions.

Early in the case, Fischer issued a preliminary injunction barring the city from enforcing the municipal code that prohibits bulky items. Because of that ruling, the plaintiffs would have essentially already won their case involving any property taken under the bulky item law, but would have retained a defense for items taken under a health standard, Myers said.

Fischer subsequently held the city in contempt after the plaintiff’s attorney introduced evidence that city workers continued to post signs in some locations prohibiting bulky items.

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Since then the case has dragged on over disputes about the accuracy of the city’s records.

According to court filings, the city responded to the discovery request for the documents by converting printouts of the original Microsoft Word documents into PDFs. The process eliminated the date stamps that recorded when the originals were created and last modified.

When the original of one of those records was attached to an email the plaintiffs obtained in discovery, Myers found that it had been extensively revised before the conversion to PDF.

After Myers presented evidence of the altered documents in a 2022 hearing, Fischer took the unusual step of appointing a neutral third-party forensic examiner to determine if the city had “spoliated” records, a legal term meaning intentionally or negligently altering or destroying.

The examiner’s preliminary report said he obtained some of the original documents but was unable to obtain others. Manually comparing originals with the PDFs, Myers’ team found more than 100 revisions in some documents. Among them, bulky was changed to “ADA violation,” a reference to the Americans With Disabilities Act, and “Property left behind by encampment” was changed to “Contaminated Items Surrendered or Left Behind by Resident.”

In February, Fischer issued a finding that the city had altered records and sharply rebuked the city’s arguments that the revisions were insignificant.

“The City’s contention that material changes to documents such as the reason for seizing and destroying personal property — sometimes to match the City’s litigation position — are ‘administrative’ is also untenable,” she wrote.

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“The City’s conduct cannot be excused as ‘imperfect document management;’ ... its ‘explanation’ for its admitted spoliation is unconvincing to say the least.”

In a follow-up order on April 1, she found that “the full extent of the city’s spoliation has not yet been determined” and set an April 8 deadline for the city to turn over all relevant documents to the forensic examiner.

“Any delays by the City will not be tolerated,” she wrote.

Fischer said she would deem any relevant records that the city fails to produce as “spoliated.”

The city turned over a Google drive, which is being evaluated, but no additional documents, Myers said.

Myers said she has not determined what sanctions to propose and will do so after the forensic examination is complete, in a month or two.

A trial, stayed for the forensic examination, has still not been set.

“This case would have been resolved years ago but for the need for the court to investigate the city’s conduct, delaying a public reckoning about the legality of these sweeps,” Myers said.

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