LANCASTER — The American Civil Liberties Union and the University of California-Irvine Consumer Law Clinic filed a suit, Monday, against the City of Lancaster and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, alleging an administrative citation system that is designed and enforced to punish poverty, in violation of the California Constitution.
“In the City of Lancaster, people who are homeless are treated as criminals and subjected to citations that carry fines far beyond their means to pay,” the ACLU said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “They can appeal, but in a Kafka-like situation, the city demands that a fine be fully paid before an appeal can be heard.”
People experiencing homelessness have been subjected to fines of $500 for the first citation and $1,000 for the second without the possibility of appeal unless full payment is received, according to the Los Angeles Superior Court petition.
If a citation is not paid within 30 days, the city refers it to Innovation Collection Services, a private debt collection agency that imposes an additional $150 fine. If a person is not able to pay a citation penalty within 30 days, the city threatens to block the person’s driver’s license renewal and to file a claim against their income tax return, in addition to referring the citation to the debt collection agency, according to the petition.
“The City of Lancaster is committed to holding ourselves to the highest standards. We believe that it is our responsibility to provide for the safety of our citizens. Changes to state laws and other steps in reforming the criminal justice system have been and are being implemented at the state and county level, including a focus on diverting persons charged with misdemeanor offenses away from criminal proceedings. It continues to be in the public interest that persons who commit misdemeanor offenses be held accountable for their crimes. Lancaster has been reviewing the existing administrative citation to ensure that it will benefit public health, safety and welfare, while providing persons who commit such offenses an opportunity to avoid criminal proceedings and possible convictions. We will continue to support the program, with the goal of decriminalization and keeping people out of the system — including the unhoused,” stated Mayor R. Rex Parris. “We are aware that the ACLU has filed a lawsuit against the City, we are surprised they prefer to stick people with a criminal record when there are better alternatives available. We take these allegations seriously and will be addressing appropriately.”
A representative for the LA County Sheriff’s Department did not immediately reply for an email request for comment.
Plaintiff Leroy Butts, a 68-year-old Black man who was unhoused at the time, was passing out “Know Your Rights” pamphlets on Aug. 22, 2019 in American Heroes Park to educate other unhoused people about their rights. Two sheriff’s deputies approached a group of people experiencing homelessness. Butts told members of the group of their rights to be in the park and in a clear act of retaliation, the deputies issued him a $500 administrative citation, according to the petition.
“As you can imagine, a penalty like that is unpayable for most people, but especially for unhoused people,” Tiffany Bailey, an attorney with ACLU SoCal said in a telephone call. “So our client, Mr. Butts, who was unhoused at that time, had no ability to pay.”
Bailey added an appeal is not guaranteed.
“And so people who are indigent, particularly unhoused people, are completely foreclose from appealing at all,” Bailey said.
Butts was not able to pay the $500 fine, nor was he able to pay the $150 collection fee imposed on him as a result of his inability to pay the penalty, according to the petition.
“From our view of the records, we know that citations have been issued to unhoused people at an alarming rate, so we know that it’s just not Mr. Butts,” Bailey said.
The petition asks the court to order Lancaster and the Sheriff’s Department to stop issuing citations under the city’s administrative citation program and order Lancaster to stop the collection of debts imposed by the citation system. The petition also seeks to award compensatory and punitive damages to Butts.
“It’s a deeply unjust system,” Bailey said. “It’s deeply unjust under any time, but especially in an economic crisis. The city is citing people and making them rack up unpayable fines and fees that make survival even more difficult.”