This morning, Monday, March 26, the U.S. District Court of Colorado struck down competing motions for summary judgment by the City of Denver and lawyers representing thousands of Denver’s homeless in a class action lawsuit.
That ruling means that the suit is now headed to trial.
The saga began back in August 2016, when attorney Jason Flores-Williams sued the city — as well as Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver Police Chief Robert White — in federal court, alleging that the constitutional rights of the homeless were being violated when the city conducted large-scale sweep operations. Flores-Williams alleged that Denver violated the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments (protection against unlawful searches and seizures and the equal-protection clause, respectively) when it was confiscating — and in some instances trashing — the belongings of people experiencing homelessness.
In April 2017, the case became a big deal when U.S. District Court Judge William Martinez made the rare step of granting class certification, making every person experiencing homelessness in Denver (over 3,000 people) a plaintiff in the case against the city.
[In August 2017] Flores-Williams filed a motion for summary judgment — meaning he asked the federal court to rule without a full trial. In response, the city also made its own motion for summary judgment.
At the time, Flores-Williams told Westword that he expected the motions would cancel each other out and that the lawsuit would head toward “a monster trial.”
His premonition — at least on the ruling — was correct. And according to Flores-Williams, the presiding judge, William Martinez, also ruled against a separate motion by Denver to strike evidence from the trial.
“We’ve overcome the city’s serious procedural challenges,” Flores-Williams says. “Our motion for summary judgment successfully educated the court about what’s happening with the homeless sweeps so that the court’s ultimate ruling was fair about violations of the homeless’s Fourth Amendment and due process rights.”
He added that he expects the trial to begin within the next six to eight months. “I expect it’ll be in 2018,” he says.
Whether the trial will be with a full jury or will be decided solely by a presiding judge is up to Flores-Williams and co-counsel David Lane; Flores-Williams says they have yet to make a decision.
In a press release this morning, Flores-Williams wrote: "There was one promise made at the outset: that the thousands of poor who have been broken and violated by the homeless sweeps would have their day in court — and now they're getting it."
In response to today's development, the mayor's office issued the following statement:
"The city’s clean up efforts address very serious public health concerns for people who live on the streets or who live in homes or work in businesses in the area. With exposed food, used needles and feces or other human waste in these encampments, the areas quickly became unsafe and unsanitary.
Denver cares deeply for people experiencing homelessness — providing for those experiencing homelessness on a greater scale than any other city in Colorado and many other similarly sized cities in the U.S. Denver invests as much as $50 million every year to shelter, feed, train, employ, house and otherwise positively support those experiencing homelessness. Denver is a compassionate city, and giving those experiencing homelessness the opportunity to find stability and achieve their goals will remain at the forefront of the administration’s agenda."