CWRU law students file suit on behalf of Akron’s homeless

Alexander Wheaton, Staff Reporter

Three students and one graduate recently filed a lawsuit against the city of Akron on behalf of eleven homeless individuals who had their belongings seized and destroyed by the Akron Police Department.

Assistant Professor Avidan Cover is leading students Nathaniel Ehrman, Donielle Robinson, Emma Victorelli and graduate Rebecca Sremack. Cover is representing the eleven homeless individuals on an interim basis, while a petition to allow the students to participate is approved.

The eleven plaintiffs, who range from age 22 to 64, are suing for material and personal losses, mostly suffered during an Akron police raid on Nov. 6, 2013. Among the lawsuit’s six defendants are Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic, police chief James Nice and Akron Director of Public Service John Moore.

The CWRU law team is operating out of the Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic, which allows law students to gain hands-on experience working on real cases giving free representation to people who would not be able to afford it otherwise.

The students argue that in raids dating back to 2010, the Akron Police Department has wrongfully seized and destroyed items essential to their plaintiffs’ survival and other personal affects, including tents, blankets, legal documents, military papers and mementos.

The Nov. 6 raid was conducted in downtown Akron. In response to complaints from nearby businesses, the Akron Police Department cleared the area where almost twenty homeless people were camping. They seized the individuals’ property and threw away any items left behind.

The suit alleges that the raid deprived one plaintiff, George Suppan, of a pair of warm boots at the onset of one of Northeast Ohio’s worst winters. Without them, Suppan suffered frostbite and was hospitalized. Doctors later amputated two of his affected toes. He continues to suffer foot pain, has trouble keeping his balance and can no longer work.

The law students argue that the city told the individuals they could camp there.

“The property by and large wasn’t used for anything,” said Cover. “It’s our understanding that they were told they could be there even if they were on private property.”

According to a statement from the Akron Police Department, the individuals were on public property and the city acted properly. Upon observation, the property appeared to be secluded and unused.

Unlike Cleveland, Akron requires homeless individuals to have a panhandler’s license in order to beg for money on the street. This law is part of recent attempts to crack down on homelessness in the city.

“There’s been an effort to gentrify in Akron,” said Cover. “It suggests a level of animosity for the homeless.”

This, along with stronger enforcement of loitering and trespassing laws, makes it difficult for homeless people to buy food, clothing and other essential items.

“Cleveland fought most of these cases back in the ’90s, but Akron has one of the most draconian policies regarding the homeless,” said Bryan Davis, Executive Director of the Northeastern Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.

The law team plans on arguing that the Akron Police did not give the plaintiffs sufficient notice to remove their belongings from the area.

“Regardless of the fact that they’re homeless, they still have constitutional rights,” said Ehrman.

The students are arguing that the government violated the individuals’ rights against unreasonable search and seizure. They also say that the destruction of their property and the tents that were their homes was a violation of their fundamental rights to physical and emotional well being.

“It’s not normal procedure to destroy property,” said Robinson. “Even if you’re arrested, your possession are saved.”

In their suit, the students have asked the U.S. District Court to recognize the unconstitutionality of the city’s practices. The suit also requests a permanent injunction against the Akron Police Department’s continuation of such practices, and compensation for the eleven plaintiff’s damages.

Neither the Akron Police Department nor the mayor’s office responded to requests for comment.

“What we’re asking for is quite modest,” said Ehrman. “We’re seeking a change in policy so that the homeless don’t have property seized and so that, if they do, they have an opportunity to get it back.”

The complaint will go before the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Divison, once the students’ petition to represent the plaintiffs is approved.