SJLF and ACLU-LA Achieve Important Milestone in the Fight Against Criminalization of the Unhoused

On January 12, 2022, SJLF and ACLU of Louisiana obtained an important legal victory in the fight to protect the constitutional rights of unhoused individuals when a federal magistrate judge in Louisiana granted their client, Deanna Thomas, leave to amend her complaint, which was later affirmed by the district court over the defendants’ objections.

Ms. Thomas’s lawsuit describes systemic harassment and assaults of Ms. Thomas by East Jefferson Levee District Police in a public park in Kenner, LA over several months during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. SJLF Fellows Hannah Schoen and Emily Olivencia-Audet, along with attorneys at the ACLU-LA, fought for Ms. Thomas’ right to amend her complaint, among other things, to seek injunctive and declaratory relief against the police department itself in an effort to establish and protect Ms. Thomas’s right to be free from unconstitutional police action, and to prevent such harm from occurring in the future.

“This victory allows Ms. Thomas to continue to combat the harassment she has experienced as an unhoused person of color,” said SJLF Fellow Emily Olivencia-Audet. SJLF Fellow Hannah Schoen added, “Unhoused people have a right to be free of the repeated harassment and abuse that they often face at the hands of law enforcement – who are supposed to protect them.”

As part of SJLF’s inaugural project, SJLF Fellows have worked with ACLU of Louisiana’s Justice Lab project to challenge widespread police misconduct. “The SJLF Fellows have been a boon to our Justice Lab campaign. Their work has demonstrated the drive, grit, excellence, ardor, and joy that are the hallmark of the next generation of this country’s civil rights leaders. We could not be more proud of this partnership and these young people standing up for the rights of this country’s most marginalized people,” shared Nora Ahmed, ACLU-LA’s Legal Director.

The Justice Lab initiative aims to test the impact that litigation has on racially discriminatory police practices by focusing intensive efforts on a single state. Sadly, Ms. Thomas is but one of many individuals who find themselves without housing in Louisiana, as homelessness in the state is on the rise, particularly among women and people of color. Launched in 2020, 32 cases have already been filed as part of the Justice Lab initiative.