One of the “First They Came for the Homeless” encampments, before it was removed by the city. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The city of Berkeley’s repeated removal of a homeless group’s encampment was not unconstitutional, a jury found Friday morning.

A week-long trial in federal court examined whether Berkeley targeted the First They Came for the Homeless group for protesting, and whether the city owed three men damages for taking and losing their tents, wheelchair tools and clothes.

After deliberating for a few hours, the jury told Judge William Alsup that the city did not single out the homeless group or unfairly take their belongings without giving them notice.

“We’re certainly pleased,” said City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley outside the courtroom after the verdict was delivered. “It’s a victory for the city, of course, but it’s not a victory for everyone. We deeply care about our homeless community.”

During the trial, civil rights lawyers from the firm Siegel, Yee, Brunner & Mehta tried to demonstrate that city leaders and police were well aware of the First They Came for the Homeless group’s vocal criticism of the city. They said other, more unruly, encampments were left untouched while Berkeley cleared out the camp in question eight times in a three-month period in 2016 and 2017.

Lawyer EmilyRose Johns told Berkeleyside she was “disappointed” by the verdict, and said testimony from a witness who was unable to show up could have made a difference.

“What might not have come out is that the city can’t demonstrate they removed any other encampment during that period,” Johns said. While the jury was on a break during the third day of the trial, city lawyers said records of the removal notices allegedly given to the encampments throughout the city were destroyed when the employee who kept them retired.

Throughout the case, Deputy City Attorney Lynne Bourgault had police testify that they didn’t care about homeless group’s protests and had addressed others camps throughout Berkeley. First They Came for the Homeless was not removed because its members were politically active, Bourgault said, but instead because of health and safety issues connected to the encampments, which were typically established in highly public areas or on medians. She repeatedly mentioned instances where feces were smeared on a city office door and pro-suicide messages were written on sidewalks outside Berkeley High, both occurring when the camp was set up in the area.

Jurors also rejected claims that Berkeley violated the three plaintiffs’ – Adam Bredenberg, Benjamin Royer and Clark Sullivan – 14th Amendment rights. The 14th Amendment prohibits the seizure of property without due process.

The plaintiffs testified that they didn’t know how to retrieve the belongings taken from them during the camp removals, couldn’t make it to the city’s storage facility in their wheelchairs, or arrived there to find their items soaking wet.

A text-heavy paper notice is taped to a tree. In the background is a tarp covering an unidentified object or set of large objects.
The city recently posted notices warning that objects left on sidewalks are in violation of new rules. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On Friday following the verdict, Johns said outside the court that the notices posted at the First They Came for the Homeless camp during the period in question did not have information on where to retrieve stored items.

Johns said the city’s attitude was: “You, disabled homeless person, make all of the effort to find out this information.”

During the trial, the city argued that staff readily shared information about the storage facility, and supporters of the encampment showed up often to collect items.

After the verdict was announced, a distressed Royer told reporters he would immediately pack up all his belongings and bring them to his personal storage space today.

Royer, who has severe sciatica and bipolar disorder, said he lost his wheelchair repair tools, a therapy object, and a sleeping bag during encampment removals. He is still living at the current site of First They Came for the Homeless, near Adeline Street and Alcatraz Avenue, and said he fears retribution from the city.

“We’re going to get hit hard,” said Royer. “The only thing that’s stopped the city is this case. Since we’ve lost now, there’s no reason for them to hold back.”

Williams-Ridley told reporters the city would “stay consistent” in its approach to homeless services and enforcement of the law.

“There are rules and regulations that we have to abide by,” she said.

The city has begun enforcing a new policy limiting the amount of space objects can take up on the sidewalk and banning tents between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.

“You can put up your tent at 10:01,” said Williams-Ridley. “But pack it up so we can share our streets.”

Friday’s verdict concludes a case first filed in October 2017 against both Berkeley and BART alleging Eighth and Fourth Amendment violations as well. Johns said it is too early to say whether the firm will appeal the verdict.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...