Vermont city settles with ACLU client over homeless policy

BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the city of Burlington have settled a federal lawsuit over the city’s policy of confiscating and destroying the property of homeless residents, the two sides said Wednesday.

In the settlement on behalf of ACLU client Brian Croteau Sr., the city agreed to advise people of the specific reason their sheltering site is being considered for removal, provide an opportunity to object to that removal, give adequate notice before taking property from sheltering sites and store that property for at least 30 days, the ACLU said.

As part of the settlement, Croteau will receive $25,000 plus reimbursement for mediation costs.

The original lawsuit was filed in October 2017 following reports that Burlington was evicting residents from sheltering sites and seizing and destroying their personal property, despite city officials’ knowledge that shelters were full.

“With this settlement, some of Burlington’s most marginalized residents are protected from having their personal property seized and destroyed without due process — including life-sustaining possessions like tents, sleeping bags, medications, food, and clothing," said Vermont ACLU staff attorney Lia Ernst said in a news release.

Burlington City Attorney Eileen Blackwood said in a statement that the federal judge hearing the case had found the ACLU had “not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits.” The court also said that the “action of the police and the Department of Public Works in removing the property from the land after notice and followed by an opportunity to recover the property is not an unconstitutional seizure.”

But because the case carried the risk the city could be required to pay attorney's fees, the city's insurer agreed to make the payment to Croteau and the ACLU to resolve the lawsuit.

“At no time was the city ever punishing individuals for sleeping in public when they have nowhere else to go or criminalizing poverty or homelessness," Blackwood said. Nor has the City ever had a policy of "confiscating and destroying the property of homeless residents in violation of their constitutional rights."

The ACLU said it was the third lawsuit it had settled with the city in just over two years relating to its treatment of indigent and low-income residents. The cases have resulted in policy changes and more than $70,000 in payments to plaintiffs and associated costs, the ACLU said.