ACLU of Utah alleges Salt Lake County is failing to provide due process before homeless camp cleanups

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) People are forced to pack up their belongings in carts and wagons near the Salt Lake City Library, Monday, Dec. 23, 2019.

The Salt Lake County Health Department is not complying with its own rules around homeless encampment cleanups across the Salt Lake Valley, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah said Friday — and may be violating the due process rights of unsheltered individuals.

In a demand letter sent late last week to the county health department, district attorney’s office and Mayor Jenny Wilson, the organization called on the county to modify its public notification procedures to include information about how a person could challenge a notice of violation and any resulting confiscation of their personal property.

“Our major concern is that the notices that are provided do not follow or comport with due process, both with the department’s own regulations but also with our understanding of due process under the 14th Amendment,” said Jason Groth, an attorney and smart justice coordinator at the ACLU. “Whenever the government interferes with one of your rights to life, liberty or property, you should have a say in the matter and an opportunity to be heard and contest deprivation.”

A photograph shared recently with The Salt Lake Tribune shows a notice that informs campers of the prohibition on camping on private or public property that is not licensed and zoned for that purpose and notes that any items remaining after the listed date and time of the cleanup will be “considered abandoned and will be disposed of.”

But it doesn’t inform people how to contest enforcement with a local health officer or a designated representative of the local health department to challenge the cleanup notice, as they contend Salt Lake Valley Health Department regulations require.

Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp told The Tribune on Monday that county postings about encampment cleanups are not considered to be a formal notice of violation and therefore do not fall under the requirements the ACLU cites.

“I think they have confused that general public notice on a paper sign with our formal notice of violation and order of compliance,” he said.

In the two-page demand letter, Groth notes that his organization may pursue “alternative courses of action” if the issue can’t be resolved through “communication and cooperation” and asks the county to inform the ACLU by Monday about whether it intends to change its ways.

The district attorney’s office responded to the demand letter on Friday, offering its opinion that information about how to contest the notice would not be required in these instances.

“Requesting in a general public notice that individuals relocate items to avoid disposal, as this paper does, is a far cry from initiating an enforcement action seeking administrative penalties such as injunctive relief, monetary penalties, and recovery of investigative costs,” Darcy Goddard, chief policy adviser in the District Attorney’s Office, wrote.

The ACLU said it did not consider that Friday email an “official response” and Groth said the organization stands by its assessment that the notices do constitute an administrative enforcement.

“The notices aren’t gentle reminders that people need to pick up their litter or it will be thrown away," he 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.”

In a previous interview with The Tribune, Rupp said the cleanups are meant to “mitigate any public health hazards” as a result of camping, which is illegal in Salt Lake County and in most cities in the county.

In Salt Lake City, for example, a violation of the camping ordinance is a class B misdemeanor and could carry a penalty of up to $1,000 and six months in jail, though the average recommended fine is $680, not including surcharges.

The Health Department is not responsible for enforcement of those regulations and is instead looking to clean up human waste, syringes, or anything that “transmits disease or harms the environment,” Rupp said.

“The Salt Lake County Health Department has a duty under state law and city and county ordinances and under our own regulations to protect the safety of county residences, including people who are experiencing homelessness,” Rupp told The Tribune on Monday.

The county provides at least 24 hours notice of cleanups with signs posted on trees and telephone poles and often brings social workers who can provide people experiencing homelessness with referrals for mental health and substance abuse services, as well as information about space within the new homeless resource centers and other shelters, he added.

Camping cleanups happen around the county each week and at Salt Lake City’s Library Square about once a week, Rupp said.

But the purges have recently come into the public spotlight amid ongoing concerns about bed shortages at the Salt Lake City area’s three new homeless resource centers and as a result of attention from Civil Riot, an activist group that’s best known for its involvement in protesting the inland port.

Earlier this month, that group and members of other community activist organizations gathered at Salt Lake City’s Library Square to confront Salt Lake City Police, Utah Highway Patrol and Salt Lake County Health Department officials’ cleanup of an encampment there.

“Why are you removing people when there’s no room in the shelter?” a Civil Riot member asked officers as he livestreamed the cleanup on Facebook.

He received few responses as he followed them around, demanding answers and characterizing their actions as “f---ing evil” and immoral.

In the wake of that video — which had received around 101,000 views on Facebook and was shared more than 375 times as of Monday afternoon — Groth said the ACLU received multiple inquiries and complaints from community members about the cleanups over the last two weeks that prompted them to look into the regulations.

Groth said he thinks the ACLU’s request is “pretty straightforward” and hopes to see it acted upon quickly.

“Comporting with your own regulations by including that necessary information and then honoring those requests for a hearing should be something that is not a big ask,” he said.