The experiment of hosting homeless encampments in Minneapolis parks ended a year ago, but the legal battle between the American Civil Liberties Union and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board continues.

The ACLU of Minnesota sued the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and the Park Board in October 2020, alleging law enforcement violated the property, privacy and due-process rights of unsheltered people when they swept tent cities from Minneapolis parks.

If it succeeds, the lawsuit could potentially restrict encampment sweeps, forcing local governments to provide extended notice, storage, help with packing as well as transportation to alternative housing, said ACLU legal director Teresa Nelson.

"On the one hand that might sound expensive, but on the other hand we provide a lot of city services, and our people who are unhoused are members of the community as well," she said.

The ACLU is representing Zakat, Aid and Charity Assisting Humanity (ZACAH), a nonprofit that provides financial assistance to prevent Minnesotans from becoming homeless, as well as nine individuals who lived in Minneapolis parks until they were evicted.

Lawyers for the ACLU and the Park Board argued in U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright's courtroom on Friday over the viability of the suit after the Park Board moved to dismiss.

The Park Board seeks dismissal of all federal constitutional claims as well as allegations that the Park Board, Park Superintendent Al Bangoura and park Police Chief Jason Ohotto's roles in the dismantling of tents were "conscience-shocking," violating fundamental rights rooted in traditional concepts of liberty and justice.

Park Board lawyer Ann Walther argued park defendants were faced with an unprecedented situation in the summer of 2020, "dealing with chaos, criminal activity and a pandemic where one of the few things people could do was get out in parks." She said the Park Board has never been in the business of handling homeless encampments, and that Bangoura and Ohotto acted within the parameters of Gov. Tim Walz's COVID-19 executive orders.

In March 2020, Walz issued orders prohibiting disbanding encampments unless they became a public safety threat. Following civil unrest over the murder of George Floyd in May, the Minneapolis unsheltered population grew. Many moved into parks.

The Park Board passed a resolution that summer offering refuge to anyone experiencing homelessness. But as camps swelled to hundreds of tents, the board restricted them to certain parks and capped the number of people allowed to reside in each. Bangoura ordered evictions of camps he believed had grown out of control.

"There were multiple reports of domestic disputes and fights and documented sexual assaults and shootings. There were many late-night disturbances," he declared in a court document.

In their complaint, former encampments residents detailed how they ended up in parks after dealing with addiction, abusive relationships and full emergency shelters. It describes how plaintiff Henrietta Brown, an Oglala Sioux tribal member living at Peavey Field Park, was woken before 5 a.m. by police shaking her tent and shining a light in her face, yelling that she had 30 minutes to get out in pouring rain.

"Because Ms. Brown never received an eviction notice, she was not prepared to leave," according to the complaint. "When Ms. Brown told a deputy sheriff that she needed to get important papers from her tent, he told her that she could not do that and threatened to arrest her."

Plaintiffs allege police destroyed IDs, irreplaceable family memorabilia and winter survival gear.

While sweeps were underway, the ACLU filed for a temporary restraining order.

Wright denied the request after the Park Board superintendent and police chief attested that encampments were disbanded only after they became dangerous, and when alternative shelter existed.

In September, Wright dismissed all federal-law claims against Hennepin County and Sheriff David Hutchinson, leaving some state-law claims intact.

The judge recognized that while encampment residents believe their property was taken without fair notice, the county had to disband encampments to promote general safety. "Plaintiffs have not identified any legal authority demonstrating that a tent pitched unlawfully on public land is a home such that its owner has an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy," she wrote.

At the same time, Wright drew a line between confiscating encampment residents' personal effects and destroying them.

During Friday's hearing, Wright's questions returned to the nuance between taking encampment residents' belongings and razing them, using the analogy that an illegally parked car may be impounded but not destroyed without giving the owner a chance to reclaim it.

Walther responded that there is no clearly established definition of "adequate notice" or any requirement that government hold on to property cleared from an unlawful encampment.

Wright does not have a deadline to issue a ruling following Friday's hearing.

Homeless encampments have not been permitted in Minneapolis parks since February 2021, yet they persist in neighborhoods throughout the city. There are an estimated 13 camps scattered throughout Minneapolis, including two on private property.