Homeless Class Action Suit New Evidence: Flamethrowers and BBQs

The Denver Police, Sheriff and Parks and Recreation departments celebrated the July 13, 2016, sweep with a barbecue.
The Denver Police, Sheriff and Parks and Recreation departments celebrated the July 13, 2016, sweep with a barbecue.
Courtesy of the ACLU
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Lawyers representing Denver's homeless population filed a motion for a summary judgment that, if approved by a judge, would put an end to Denver's practice of homeless sweeps on the grounds that they violate the constitutional rights of the city's 3,400 individuals experiencing homelessness.

The motion was filed on Monday, August 14, by civil-rights lawyers Jason Flores-Williams and Andy McNulty — the latter from the well-known civil-rights firm Killmer, Lane and Newman. With the move, the two hope to speed up the case by providing all of the plaintiff's evidence — which include allegations that Denver police used flamethrowers to incinerate people's possessions in a sweep — for immediate consideration by the judge instead of going through the process of gathering evidence during the trial. 

"It is just based on the overwhelming evidence that we have right now, so we don't even need to go to trial to procure the evidence we need to win," says McNulty. "Since we have it, we want to get the result as fast as possible for our clients.

"Winter is coming," McNulty adds. "Every day that folks are getting swept is a day that their constitutional rights are being trampled upon. By doing this now — when we have the evidence and we can win — we are protecting our clients' rights."

Flores-Williams and McNulty say that the rights of their clients — the entire homeless population of Denver — were violated in a series of sweeps since October 2015, including Operation River Dance in July 2016. In that sweep, as reported by Westword, dozens of homeless people were removed from encampments on the South Platte River and Cherry Creek bike path at 5 a.m.

While the Denver Police, Sheriff and Parks and Rec departments celebrated the sweep with a barbecue, those displaced had possessions like tarps, bikes and tents confiscated and destroyed — which Flores-Williams and McNulty view as a violation of the Fourth Amendment's protection from unlawful search and seizure and the Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection.

A deposition filed in the motion also alleges that the barbecue was "across the street from, and in plain view of, Plaintiff Class Members." Another deposition claims that city officials used flamethrowers during Operation River Dance that "incinerated Plaintiff Class Members' property that they were not allowed to gather."

The decision was announced at a press conference on the steps of the Denver City and County Building, where homeless advocates from Denver Homeless Out Loud — many of them currently or formerly homeless themselves, or living at the new Tiny Home Village in RiNo — condemned the sweeps as violations of human dignity.

"It gives you a lesser feeling, like you're smaller than a dog. That's how [the police] treat you," says Amanda McDougald, who lived on and off the streets for about a year after escaping an abusive relationship that left her broke.

According to Flores-Williams, the motion could be approved by a judge within five or six months. He says that he is optimistic in the case and its implications for the rights of homeless people in Denver and beyond.

But a spokeswoman for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock's office says that the case is far from over. “The city also plans to file a motion for summary judgment...at some point today," wrote spokeswoman Jenna Espinoza in an email.

"It will be up to the court to determine what the evidence shows and whether either side is entitled to judgment without a trial. While facts will be determined by the court, it is absurd to suggest that the city used flamethrowers against any individual experiencing homeless," she added.

Both motions would have to be considered by a judge — in this case, District Court Judge William Martinez — if the city files, and both parties would have to oppose each other's motions. Flores-Williams says he saw the move coming from miles away, and he remains optimistic about the case.

"We knew 100 percent that they would file for a summary judgment," he says. "It's nothing — the powerful party always files for a motion to dismiss."

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