SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Nestled under the dominating silhouette of Mt. Shasta in northernmost California is a bustling community of Vietnam War refugees and Hmong-Americans seeking solitude in normally tranquil Siskiyou County. Hundreds of newly settled Hmong residents sought calm in the mountainous terrain, but many say they have collided with a sheriff hell-bent on restricting their voting and property rights.
Alleging systematic voter suppression in the June primary and subsequent racial profiling by Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey, 10 Hmong property owners sued the sheriff and Siskiyou County on Monday in Federal Court.
“I remember the panic and the fear in my clients’ voices when they first called me,” said their attorney Kyndra Miller, of San Francisco.
Among the refugees’ claims are that the county rejected their voter registrations for lack of information — though the county has not issued many of their properties an address.
Jesse Vang and his nine co-plaintiffs say they have been subjected to threats from heavily armed plainclothes officers, and restrictive, racially motivated county laws aimed at Hmong residents.
Miller says the problems with the sheriff began when an influx of Hmong started buying undeveloped land in 2015. The Hmong families are attracted to the rural terrain because it reminds them of their homeland in Laos.
After partnering with U.S. troops during the Vietnam war, thousands of Hmong were killed or uprooted into refugee camps. Hundreds of thousands of refugees eventually resettled in the United States. Today the largest Hmong-American populations live in Northern California and Minnesota.
Rather than welcoming and incorporating the new residents into Siskiyou County, pop. 44,000, the plaintiffs say, the county quickly passed ordinances targeting “people of Hmong ethnicity.”
With Lopey’s support, Siskiyou County officials passed Local Ordinance SC 10-14 in 2015, calling it a marijuana cultivation law aimed at keeping outsiders from growing on unincorporated land. The ordinance requires homes to be connected to sewer or septic tanks as a prerequisite for occupancy or medical marijuana grows.
Most of the land the Hmong bought was in unincorporated areas without city or county sewer hookups. There are no known aquifers in the area, so drilling wells can be fruitless. And Siskiyou County has not assigned addresses to many of the newly purchased, two-acre plus lots.
Citing the timing of the ordinance, critics said it was meant to give Lopey “unfettered power” to target the new Hmong homeowners.
In June this year, Siskiyou County voters approved two more measures, declaring outdoor cultivation of medicinal marijuana a public nuisance.
Outdoor marijuana grows are common in Siskiyou County and the surrounding counties of Trinity, Modoc and Shasta. Northern California’s legal medical marijuana business is a multibillion-dollar industry.
While Miller acknowledges that some of her clients grow medical marijuana, she says the new ordinances were passed to allow Lopey and his deputies to continue threatening and intimidating the new Hmong residents.
Miller’s law based firm, CannaBusiness Law, is “committed to helping the medical marijuana patients of California form and operate not-for-profit, democratically controlled cannabis cooperatives,” according to its website.
“Clearly, the intention of the defendants is to run the Hmong people out of the community. It seems to be a concerted effort to get rid of all these newcomers,” Miller said in an interview.
Siskiyou County’s population is 87 percent white, according to the U.S. Census.
Shortly after enactment of the new ordinances, the plaintiffs say, Lopey and other law enforcement agencies started showing up at their land in unmarked cars and without warrants, policing Hmong subdivisions and disproportionately issuing citations.
“Notices of nuisance violations have been issued overwhelmingly to Hmong property owners as opposed to white property owners, and abatement proceedings have reflected a similar disproportion of Hmong property owners prosecuted under the 2016 ordinance,” the complaint states.
Large numbers of Hmong residents registered to vote in Siskiyou County in the lead-up to the June 7 primary election. An estimated 1,800 new registrants came from unincorporated areas, and Siskiyou County Clerk Colleen Setzer alerted Lopey and the district attorney of the number of registrations.
County officials rejected many of the Hmong voter registrations because their addresses were assessor’s parcel numbers — though Siskiyou County had not assigned many of them an address yet.
Setzer, a defendant, and Siskiyou County suspected voter fraud and sent the plaintiffs and other Hmong residents letters stating: “The voter registration card you recently sent to this office does not contain all of the information required by law.”
Then the plaintiffs received letters from the Secretary of State’s Office, confirming that an investigation of voter fraud in Siskiyou County was under way.
The new voter registrations stirred Sheriff Lopey to call a news conference just four days before the primary, where he applauded the state for opening an investigation.
Lopey warned residents of potential voter fraud in rural Siskiyou County and said that citations were being handed out.
“While assisting the state investigators, which entailed security and investigative assistance, some county ordinance violations were observed and some persons were cited for those misdemeanor violations,” Lopey said in a statement on June 3.
Miller said the timing of the sheriff’s statement and news conference was meant to scare Hmong residents away from the polls. She said county officials have no business investigating voter fraud in the first place.
“The press conference was done to intimidate and suppress voter turnout,” Miller said. “It’s my understanding that voter fraud investigations are conducted by the secretary of state, not the local sheriff and county clerk.”
Miller says Lopey’s news conference worked, as about 50 Hmong voters stayed home due to threats of retaliation.
The controversy attracted the attention of the American Civil Liberty Union of California, which received formal complaints about Lopey. The ACLU organized 40 Siskiyou residents, some Hmong, to monitor the June primary.
Lori Shellenberger, director of the ACLU of California’s voting rights program, called Lopey’s press conference “suspect.”
“If there’s a suspicion of voter fraud, that gets referred to the secretary of state’s office and it’s for them to investigate. The sheriff is not in charge of policing our voters,” Shellenberger said.
In a phone interview, Lopey was unyielding in dismissing plaintiffs’ complaints of racial profiling. He said he’s never been accused of profiling in his 38 years of law enforcement experience and that the property raids were initiated by complaints from Siskiyou County residents, not his department.
He said the major issue in Siskiyou County is not racial profiling or voter suppression, but “sophisticated criminal operations” being conducted in the county’s unincorporated areas.
“Every single search warrant we’ve served there’s been illicit drug activity,” Lopey said. “Most of these parcels have 99 or more [marijuana] plants.”
In an effort to deal with the rising number of outdoor grows, the county has created a task force and sometimes does flyovers to identify large grows. Lopey said that when they conduct raids, the property owners usually aren’t there or flee from the task force through a maze of connected backwoods trails.
“There’s millions of dollars being infused into our county on these grows. Where are people getting all that cash?” Lopey said.
Lopey remains steadfast amid the batch of accusations and is confident the defendants will prevail in the lawsuit because “we’re doing the right thing.”
Shellenberger said she’s never heard of such severe voter suppression allegations as the ones in the days before the primary. She said the complaints detailed sheriff’s officers “visiting communities armed with assault rifles, wearing bulletproof vests and telling residents they could get arrested if they vote.”
“When you hear something like that, you think, ‘Not California, maybe 1960s Alabama or something,'” Shellenberger said.
After plaintiff Dang Xiong registered to vote in May, officers approached his property on two occasions, “ransacked” his trailer and seized his medical marijuana. “The gate to his lock was cut and his gate was damaged. Mr. Xiong was not cited or arrested,” the complaint states.
Raids on Hmong properties continued. On Sept. 7, peace officers performed a series of search warrants on Hmong properties, including the plaintiffs’.
“In the execution of these search warrants, residents who were present were handcuffed and held at gunpoint while their properties were ransacked, and unseized belongings damaged or abused,” the complaint states.
The plaintiffs seek punitive damages on 11 causes of action, including violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, municipal, supervisory and employer liability, negligence, violations of state and federal election laws, and emotional distress.
The ordeal has left many Hmong residents reticent to participate in November’s election. Miller says she and the ACLU are informing the Hmong, many of whom do not speak English, of their constitutional rights.
“Some clients feel strong in their beliefs and right to vote so they will show up,” Miller said. “Those with young children are terrified because they don’t want to do anything that may lead to retaliation against their family.”
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