Photo by John Schreiber.
Photo by John Schreiber.

About 200 street vendors filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department and a business improvement district Thursday for allegedly seizing and destroying vendors’ carts, dollies and other personal belongings.

The complaint, brought on the vendors’ behalf by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and other organizations, alleges that the LAPD’s sidewalk enforcement practice is unconstitutional and violates their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures and 14th Amendment right to due process.

“Every day in Los Angeles, street vendors have their hard-earned property illegally confiscated and destroyed,” Cynthia Anderson-Barker, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, said at a news conference in front of the LAPD’s downtown headquarters.

“They are penalized as they struggle to support their families,” she said. “This lawsuit targets unjust law enforcement practices that push these productive members of our community further into poverty.”

Street vending is illegal in Los Angeles, but city leaders are currently weighing whether to legalize and regulate the sidewalk trade.

LAPD spokesman Drake Madison said the department had no immediate comment. A City Attorney’s Office representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.     Kent Smith, executive director of the Fashion District Business Improvement District, said his organization’s primary purpose is to keep the area clean and safe.

“We simply dispose of perishable, contaminated and abandoned property that would otherwise be left in our district without the BID’s assistance,” Smith said. “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.”

However, Smith acknowledged “there can be misunderstandings between reasonable individuals about the process of disposing of trash in the Fashion District.”

The plaintiffs include an ice-cream vendor and the 200-member Union Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes, which organizes street vendors in Los Angeles. They allege that they are repeatedly stopped by the LAPD, sometimes cited and threatened with arrest, and have their property confiscated and destroyed without notice.

“All we ask is that police and security guards stop confiscating our property,” said named plaintiff Aureliano Santiago, the downtown ice-cream vendor. “We are workers, not criminals.”

The plaintiffs also contend that the LAPD is directing and authorizing employees of the Fashion District BID — which was created and funded in 1996 by the City of Los Angeles — to seize the property and destroy it.

The business improvement group provides maintenance and safety officers who perform public functions that would otherwise be carried out by the city Bureau of Sanitation and the LAPD.

The district’s security guards “are supposed to protect the security of the area — not take our property away,” said Santiago, 62.

The vendor estimated that the cart and goods that have been seized each time are worth roughly $300 — enough to cover bills and other expenses for his family.

“They don’t have value for them — but for me, they have a lot of value,” he said.

Hundreds of unlicensed vendors crowd the nearly 90-block Fashion District on weekends, selling clothing, food, sometimes counterfeit products and other goods, local business owners say.

Police and many of the area’s store and property owners contend the vendors are creating a hazard for pedestrians and leave litter and food waste on the streets.

Along with having to pay for cleaning the streets, the Fashion District BID says local shops are losing customers and revenues to the unlicensed vendors, who they say pay no taxes.

Last year, police handed out nearly 900 illegal-vending citations citywide, which can result in fines of up to $1,000 each.

The lawsuit comes three years after the city was sued over destroying the belongings of homeless people who allegedly left their items unattended on sidewalks — a practice ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court.

— Wire reports 

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