LOS ANGELES (CN) - Los Angeles police illegally seize and destroy sidewalk vendors' carts, food and belongings in the Garment District, their union claims in court.
Ice-cream vendor Aureliano Santiago and the Union Popular De Vendedores Ambulantes sued the city, the Fashion District Business Improvement District, the Downtown Los Angeles Property Owners Association and two police officers on Thursday in Federal Court.
"Every day in Los Angeles street vendors have their hard-earned property illegally confiscated and destroyed," said Cynthia Anderson Barker, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild. "They are penalized as they struggle to support their families. This lawsuit targets unjust law enforcement practices that push these productive members of our community further into poverty."
The union claims the LAPD works with maintenance and safety officers from the Fashion District Business Improvement District, or BID, to confiscate and destroy vendors' property, and has done so for more than a year.
Among the belongings officers have seized and destroyed are fruit and ice cream, carts, dollies, coolers, umbrellas and the vendors' personal property, the lawsuit states.
"While the vendors are forced to stand aside, often under threat of citations or arrest, these officers summarily throw the vendors' property into the back of a BID trash truck and haul it away, giving the vendors no opportunity to get the items back," the lawsuit states.
Fashion District Business Improvement District Executive Director Kent Smith said in a statement that it has been the BID's job for 15 years to dispose of "perishable, contaminated and abandoned property that would otherwise be left in our district."
"Our policy is not to confiscate or unlawfully take property from any individual. We do not want to unlawfully seize the property of anyone, including unpermitted vendors," Smith said in the statement, which added that the district was disappointed the union had sued "rather than engage in meaningful conversation and discussion."
Santiago claims that officers cited him for street vending and that his personal property was taken from him on five or six occasions.
On the afternoon of Sept. 12, Santiago says, he and other vendors were approached by a group of BID maintenance and safety officers, who surrounded them with their bikes and called the LAPD.
Santiago says the officers - defendant Officers Linton and Owen - threatened to arrest them while the BID officers took their carts and belongings and threw them into the back of a BID truck.
"The seizure and destruction of the vendors' property serves no legitimate government purpose and is patently unreasonable. Instead of affording the vendors rights or following established protocols, the officers seize and destroy the property as a sort of extrajudicial street punishment, meted out against the vendors as the officers see fit," the complaint states.
Each time his property is taken, Santiago says, he struggles to meet family obligations to pay rent, bills and as his daughter's college tuition.
Vendors' belongings are not taken and inventoried as evidence, as required by LAPD policy, the complaint states. Authorities do not use the property as evidence against vendors if they are charged with illegal street vending: they just trash it and get rid of it, the lawsuit states.
The union says a standing injunction prohibits such police tactics on Skid Row. In Lavan v. City of Los Angeles, the city was barred from taking and destroying homeless people's belongings.
"It's long past time for the city to stop these unconstitutional practices and end the criminalization of street vending," said ACLU staff attorney Michael Kaufman. "Rather than wasting resources punishing street vendors, the city should be working to legalize vending and ensure that vendors can earn a living without threat of prosecution or having their property destroyed."
The city has created several Business Improvement Districts funded from assessments on property owners.
The union seeks an injunction and damages for constitutional violations, state constitutional violations, and interference by threat, intimidation or coercion.
Lead attorney Carol Sobel is assisted by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, the National Lawyers Guild - Los Angeles, and Schonbrun, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman.