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Lawsuit Says Lancaster Uses Fines To 'Punish Poverty'

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The Michael Antonovich Antelope Valley Courthouse in Lancaster. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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The city of Lancaster has been accused of illegally imposing huge fines on homeless and poor people in an effort to "punish poverty," according to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and UC Irvine's Consumer Law Clinic.

The suit says that Lancaster's administrative citation system "discriminates on the basis of both race and poverty." The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, which enforces the citations as Lancaster’s police force, is also named in the complaint.

Fines of $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for a second offense can be imposed for sleeping outside or even sitting outside "without a reason," the suit says.

It also slams the city for creating a Catch-22-like system that requires the person issued the citation to pay the fine in full before they can appeal it.

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At the same time, Sheriff's deputies issue citations to Black people at disproportionate rates in Lancaster, according to the complaint. Adrienna Wong is an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California:

"We were able to confirm what members of the community have told us, and what the history of Lancaster really shows, which is a pattern of disparate and increased enforcement against Black members of the community there."

Citing publicly available data on sheriff's department activity in Lancaster, the suit alleges "40% of the people that LASD reportedly stopped to enforce Lancaster's municipal code were Black, and more than half were reported to be homeless." About 20% of the city is Black, according to U.S. Census data.

In an emailed statement, Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said the city takes the allegations seriously and will address them.

"Lancaster has been reviewing the existing administrative citation to ensure that it will benefit public health, safety and welfare, while providing persons who commit such offenses an opportunity to avoid criminal proceedings and possible convictions," Parris said.

The Sheriff's Department did not have an immediate comment.

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