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ACLU: Salt Lake County may be violating rights in homeless camp cleanup sweeps

Group says notices didn’t follow guidelines; health department says ACLU is ‘confused’

SHARE ACLU: Salt Lake County may be violating rights in homeless camp cleanup sweeps

Health department officials clean up a homeless camp at Taufer Park in Salt Lake City with the help of Utah Highway Patrol troopers and Salt Lake City police officers on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake County Health Department may have been violating the due process rights of the homeless by removing their camps without providing a proper notice of planned cleanups.

That’s according to a letter the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah sent the county health department’s executive director, Gary Edwards, on Friday. It raises concerns that the health department hasn’t been following its own rules to include information to allow individuals experiencing homelessness the opportunity to contest the notice of violation before their camps are removed.

“Before the government can take away something of yours, you should have the chance to contest it,” said Jason Groth, the ACLU of Utah’s smart justice coordinator. “It’s a fundamental concept within our democracy, within our court system.”

Groth added that “under the 14th Amendment, you should have due process rights, the right to be notified, and the right to be heard before the government can deprive you of your life, liberty, or in this case, property.”

The ACLU of Utah obtained digital photographs of the health department’s notice of violation paper signs posted before a homeless camp cleanup on Dec. 16 at Library Square, according to the letter. The signs state that it is unlawful to camp in an area not licensed and zoned for overnight camping, according to Utah code and the Salt Lake County Health Department’s regulations.

While the notice states individuals in violation are to “remove personal items from this area” and that “any items remaining after the date and time below will be considered abandoned and will be disposed of,” it doesn’t include any information on how the individual may contest the notice.

But Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp said the ACLU is “confused” and is conflating the county’s “formal” notice of violation process with the postings used to warn of “community cleanups.”

Rupp said those community cleanup warnings are not considered to be a formal notice of violation and don’t apply under the requirements cited by the ACLU.

“The formal notice of violation (process) is much longer, it’s got the appeal process ... it’s tailored for one situation and one property and one individual,” Rupp said. “These no camping signs are public notices.”

Generally speaking, Rupp said, the health department doesn’t issue formal notices of violation for clean up of encampments, but rather the public notices are for “telling everyone who views the sign” to “move their personal items or risk them being disposed as being abandoned debris.”

“It’s to keep people safe and keep unsanitary conditions from developing,” Rupp said.

The Salt Lake County Health Department has been conducting “community cleanups” of homeless camps for more than 25 years, Rupp said, and are meant to clean public health hazards such as human waste and syringes while also offering resources to campers.

“We’re really sympathetic to people who are struggling, people who are experiencing homelessness, especially at this time of year, and we make sure our workers are manned with resources including referrals to homeless resource centers, to workforce services, to substance abuse and mental health resources,” Rupp said. “We hope they take advantage of them because our cleanups and desire to keep things safe are for everyone in Salt Lake County, including the unsheltered.”

But the ACLU of Utah disagrees with the county’s interpretation. Groth said the health department’s actions “constitute an administrative enforcement,” the posted signs are notices of violations, and as a result, the “department’s own rules should apply.”

“The notices aren’t gentle reminders that people need to pick up their litter or it will be thrown away,” Groth said. “The notices are followed by a heavy law enforcement presence that secures an area. Law enforcement requires people to leave, and people’s blankets and tents are thrown away in the middle of winter. These items are not trash. They are items needed to survive.”

The ACLU in its letter requested the department’s future cleanups and notices abide by all notice requirements under county, state and federal law, including information on how a person might contest the cleanups.

“We are confident that we can resolve these issues through communication and cooperation,” the letter states. “If not, however, we may pursue alternative courses of action.”