LANCASTER – The ACLU of Southern California and the UC Irvine Consumer Law Clinic Monday filed a legal action against the city of Lancaster and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, alleging an administrative citation system exists that is unconstitutionally designed to punish the poor.
“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,” according to the Los Angeles Superior Court petition. “They can appeal, but in a Kafka-like situation, the city demands that a fine be fully paid before an appeal can be heard.”
The lawsuit asks the court to order Lancaster and the LASD to stop issuing citations under the city’s administrative citation program. A representative for the city of Lancaster did not immediately reply to a request for comment. Under Lancaster’s administrative citation system, justice is only for those who can afford it, according to the petition.
Homeless people have been fined $500 for the first citation and $1,000 for the second, the petition states. If a citation penalty is not paid within 30 days, the city refers it to a private collections agency that imposes an additional $150, according to the petition.
“It’s a system that criminalizes poverty in violation of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the California Constitution,” ACLU attorney Tiffany Bailey said. “It makes no sense to punish poverty with exorbitant, unpayable fines and fees. 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.”
The plaintiff is Leroy Butts, a 68-year-old Black man who was passing out pamphlets at a park in 2019 when two LASD deputies approached a group of people who were homeless, the petition states. Butts told the group they had a right to be in the park, but the deputies issued him a $500 citation, the petition states.
“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, the LASD,” the petition states.
Because Butts could not afford to pay the $500, he had no possibility of appeal, the petition states.