Think you can't make a federal case out of a well-traveled backpack containing some old clothes and a few toiletries?
Think again.Tracy Zimmerman has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Utah alleging that law enforcement authorities violated his civil rights last year when they seized and discarded all of his worldly possessions.
That is, a backpack containing a bottle of prescription medicine, shoe pads, a pair of shoes, shorts, a couple of shirts, socks, razor blades, a hair brush, a toothbrush, toothpaste, hand cream, shampoo and a pair of scissors.
A homeless man, Zimmerman was carrying everything he owned when he was arrested for public intoxication on May 31, 1997, and he wants it all back, or at least the $250 it was worth.
To that end, he has retained a Salt Lake attorney and plunked down the $150 it costs to file a lawsuit in federal court. It's a classic example of that all-American motivator: "It's the principle, not the money."
"We would probably settle for expenses and an agreement by the authorities to do a better job in protecting the rights and property of citizens," said attorney Loren M. Lambert.
But experience tells him it won't be that easy. "That's why we filed the lawsuit."
Filed Thursday, the suit says the 30-something Zimmerman was arrested by South Salt Lake police for public intoxication on May 31, 1997. But that's not the issue.
When officers took Zimmerman to jail, the suit said, they didn't allow him to take along his backpack.
"In the case of Tracy Zimmerman and thousands of others, the South Salt Lake Police Department has a custom of discarding such personal items of personal property," the suit alleged.
Lambert said he probably wouldn't have taken the case if he hadn't heard of similar incidents involving homeless individuals in the days before Zimmerman showed up. Zimmerman, he said, felt very strongly about the issue.
"That's what piqued my interest," Lambert said. "Some of these homeless people carry their whole life on their backs."
Named as defendants in the suit are Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron Kennard, jail administrators, South Salt Lake police officers and a number of "John Does."
The suit names jail personnel because Zimmerman alleges they discarded some of his belongings, including his medication.
According to Lambert, a jail employee admitted in a tape-recorded telephone conversation that the items were thrown away because they were "dirty."
"They weren't dirty, and even if they were not as clean as they would like, they should at least return them," Lambert said.
Sheriff's Capt. Paul Cunningham said a check of jail records indicates that Zimmerman was arrested twice, both times by Salt Lake police, not South Salt Lake police.
While declining to comment on the specific allegations, Cunningham said it's jail policy to inventory, save and return all personnel effects, such as keys, wallets, money, jewelry, watches, etc. The arrestee signs the inventory when he or she is booked into the jail and again when the items are returned upon release, Cunningham said.
However, he said because of space limitations, the jail doesn't accept large items, such as backpacks. The arresting officers are required to take those away and deal with them under their own policies, Cunningham said.
"When you book 30,000 individuals a year, you have to have a systematic process," he said.
Lambert said he would like to settle the dispute as economically as possibly out of court, but he's not hopeful.
"They will probably end up spending $10,000 to $20,000 fighting a $2,000 problem," he said.