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February 8, 2021

The ACLU and University of California-Irvine Filed the Suit

LANCASTER — 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. They can appeal, but in a Kafka-like situation, the city demands that a fine be fully paid before an appeal can be heard.

Under Lancaster’s administrative citation system, justice is only for those who can afford it.

Today, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) and the University of California, Irvine School of Law (UCI Law) Consumer Law Clinic filed a lawsuit against the City of Lancaster and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) for maintaining “an administrative citation system that is designed and enforced to punish poverty, in violation of the California Constitution.”

For the supposed offense of sleeping outdoors in a vacant lot or even sitting outside “without a reason,” people in Lancaster who are unhoused have been subjected to penalties of $500 for the first citation and $1,000 for the second — all without the possibility of appeal without full payment. And if a citation penalty is not paid within 30 days, the city refers it to a private collections agency that imposes an additional $150.

It’s a system that criminalizes poverty in violation of the “equal protection of the laws” guaranteed by the California Constitution.

“It makes no sense to punish poverty with exorbitant, unpayable fines and fees,” said Tiffany Bailey, an attorney with ACLU SoCal. “If the city really cared about public safety solutions, it would put the resources wasted on tickets and collections toward helping people meet their needs.”

Lancaster’s law enforcement is rooted not only in discrimination on the basis of poverty — about a quarter of infraction citations are issued to people who are homeless — but also on race. The sheriff’s department, which was placed under federal consent decree in 2015 for discriminatory policing practices, issues nearly half its infraction citations in Lancaster to Black people.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in Los Angeles, is Leroy Butts, a 68-year-old Black man who was unhoused at the time of an incident in 2019 in a Lancaster park. He was legally passing out “Know Your Rights” pamphlets when two LASD deputies approached a group of people who were homeless. 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.

The lawsuit says, “As Mr. Butts experienced, the city’s administrative citation scheme violates the due process and equal protection guarantees of the California Constitution and exposes Lancaster residents like him to unchecked abuse, harassment, and retaliation by the city’s police force, LASD.” And because Butts could not afford to pay the $500, he had no possibility of appeal.

“Not only can Mr. Butts not appeal, but because he lacks the means to pay the citation his debt will be referred to a private collection agency that imposes an additional $150 fee,” said Stacey Tutt, director of the UCI Law Consumer Law Clinic. “The city has also threatened to block his driver’s license renewal and file a claim against his income tax return.”

The lawsuit states that Lancaster’s administrative citation system is, in addition to being unconstitutional, an unlawful backlash against Proposition 47 that was approved by California voters in 2014. Known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, the proposition reclassified six low-level felonies, including some dealing with property violations, as misdemeanors to reduce spending on incarceration.

In a reactionary move (Lancaster’s mayor said the LASD was “helpless under Proposition 47”),  the city enacted its “Administrative Penalties for State Offenses” ordinance to increase punitive measures outside the criminal court system.

With the ordinance on the books, the city and LASD engaged “in an illegal pattern and practice of imposing invalid administrative penalties,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit asks the court to order:

  • Lancaster and the LASD to cease issuing citations under the city’s administrative citation program
  • Lancaster to stop the collection of debts imposed by the citation system
  • Compensatory and punitive damages awarded to Butts

Read the lawsuit here: