Thursday, March 4, 2021

Liman Fellows Sue California City over Ticketing of Infractions

Two former fellows from the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law, Tiffany Bailey ’17 and Adrienna Wong ’10, have filed a lawsuit against the city of Lancaster in Los Angeles County for allegedly treating unhoused people like criminals by ticketing them and charging them steep fines, according to the lawsuit.

The ACLU of Southern California (ACLU SoCal), joined by the University of California, Irvine School of Law Consumer Law Clinic, filed a lawsuit against Lancaster on February 8, 2021.

Wong, a Senior Staff Attorney at ACLU SoCal, was a 2010–2011 Liman Fellow. Bailey, a 2019–2020 Liman Fellow, is now a Munger, Tolles & Olson, LLP Fellow at ACLU SoCal, working on policing issues.

The lawsuit alleges that the city of Lancaster’s system of ticketing people for infractions discriminates and punishes people for being poor. The plaintiff is an unhoused, 86-year-old Black man who was issued a citation for $500 while in a city park. He could not appeal because the city requires people to pay their penalties before appealing. The lawsuit contends that such a system is unlawful under the California Constitution because it violates “equal protection of the laws.”

“It makes no sense to punish poverty with exorbitant, unpayable fines and fees,” said Bailey. “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.”

According to the complaint, the system discriminates on the basis of poverty — about a quarter of infraction citations are issued to unhoused people. Enforcement also discriminates based on race, the lawsuit maintains. The sheriff’s department issues nearly half its infraction citations in Lancaster to Black people, records show.

The lawsuit highlights the issue of monetary sanctions — better known as fines — in the justice system. The Liman Center has researched their use in relation to the funding of public services. The Liman Center and others increasingly maintain that the use of fines stacks the justice system against poor people.

In Lancaster, the fines are far more than people who are unhoused can afford. People can be fined anywhere from $500 to $1,000 for sleeping outdoors or for even sitting outside “without a reason,” according to the lawsuit.

During her Liman fellowship, Bailey and colleagues researched and wrote ACLU SoCal’s recently published report “Banished and Abandoned: Criminalization and Displacement of Unhoused People in Lancaster.” The report details how authorities use the threat of citations to force people out of town. That practice happens throughout Southern California, the report notes. But Lancaster represents a worst-case scenario because conditions in the high desert are so harsh. She also wrote an essay about her fellowship, which focused on challenging laws that treat homelessness as a crime.

“Lancaster’s campaign to criminalize and banish its unhoused community members is not only cruel — it is also potentially deadly. Furthermore, it is unlawful,” the report states. The city disputes the report.

Researchers based the report on 53 interviews with unhoused Lancaster residents, discussions with local activists and organizations, and a review of thousands of public records. In one example, a woman forced by authorities into the desert fell sick in her tent from heat and almost ran out of water. She told an interviewer she was “waiting to die” when her sister found her.

“Unfortunately, I was not surprised when we uncovered that Lancaster officials and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are engaging in cruel and potentially deadly criminalization and banishment practices, which target all unhoused persons, but particularly those who are Black,” Bailey said. “By shedding light on these practices, we hope that this city and all others will abandon such cruel measures and invest in permanent supportive housing — the only solution to homelessness.”