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Costa Mesa Merchants Making Citizen’s Arrests of Laborers

Times Staff Writer

In the latest battle over dayworkers in the county, some Costa Mesa merchants have begun making citizen’s arrests of laborers who congregate on their property, alleging that they are violating trespassing laws.

At least eight men have been arrested by shopkeepers in the last month at the Vista Shopping Center at 19th Street and Placentia Avenue, where scores of laborers congregate seeking daywork.

A pretrial hearing on trespassing charges is scheduled Friday for the eight men, but their attorney says she will attempt to have the charges dismissed on the ground that they violate the men’s constitutional rights.

“Shopkeepers need a way to get these men out, and (the arrests) are a clear attempt to twist the law to get what they want,” said Deborah Carrillo, an attorney in the Orange County public defender’s office who is representing all of the men.

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Carrillo said the merchants may be misapplying trespassing laws, which carry the specific requirement that a person must enter a property with the intention of obstructing or interfering with the rights of the owner.

“There is no evidence of interference on their part,” she said. “They are there to seek work, not to obstruct anything.”

Pat Lester, a manager for L&M; Property Management, which runs the shopping center, said Wednesday that business owners in the center have complained for years that the dayworkers loitered, littered and caused them other problems.

Lester, who said he filed some of the complaints himself, defended the policy of having the workers arrested.

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“This is private property, and we feel that if people are not doing business at an establishment, they don’t have any right to be there,” he said.

Carrillo also alleged that Costa Mesa police have treated dayworkers arrested for trespassing differently from others arrested for the same offense.

“This is normally a cite-and-release offense, but the Police Department has been arresting these people and holding them in custody until their arraignment,” she said.

A police spokesman denied Carrillo’s charges.

“I would have to check the disposition of each of these cases to determine what the situation has been, but whether we release somebody depends on their ability to establish identity; it has nothing to do with whether they are a dayworker or a multimillionaire,” Police Capt. Tom Lazar said.

Lazar said that while police have counseled the merchants on the legal aspects of the arrests, the city has not specifically encouraged the actions.

“This is not a policy of the Police Department, and it is not our position to tell people who they should arrest,” Lazar said. “We are required by law to accept a citizen’s arrest, whether it is a good arrest or not.”

Anyone can make a citizen’s arrest if he or she has a reasonably valid complaint, police said. After police receive the complaint, an officer is dispatched to the scene where he takes a statement and informs the complainant of his or her obligations in filling out an arrest form and testifying in court.

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Under the law, police must accept a citizen’s arrest if the complainant insists. The officer may take the alleged offender into custody or the person may be cited and released at the scene, police said.

Those who make citizen’s arrests are vulnerable to false-arrest charges if the original complaint lacks merit, police added.

But Lester said his company supported the citizen’s arrests and did not fear being held liable for false arrest.

Costa Mesa, like other Orange County cities, has been plagued by the question of what to do with the increasing numbers of Latino workers, many here illegally, who gather on street corners and in parking lots to wait for employers to pick them up for a day’s work.

Unlike other cities, most notably Orange, Costa Mesa has resisted ordering police and U.S Immigration and Naturalization Service sweeps of neighborhoods and has instead created a task force to address complaints and educate residents.

The city also established a hiring hall to help eliminate complaints.

City officials said they have not backed away from that plan. Lazar said police are not checking on the legal status of the arrested day laborers and are not referring cases to the INS.

“That is not our jurisdiction, and we are not playing that role,” he explained.

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Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Mary Hornbuckle said Wednesday that she was unaware of the arrests but called the actions “unfortunate.”

“I would agree with the police that it has not been our policy to harass or arrest anyone for merely existing,” she said. “The day laborers are human beings and have as much right to occupy space on this land as we do.”

Other city officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union said the group will file a brief in support of dismissing charges at Friday’s hearing.

“This looks like an attempt to get day laborers off the streets of Costa Mesa,” said Rebecca Hurada, an ACLU attorney. “These arrests may run up against First Amendment rights. These businesses are a public forum, and it doesn’t appear the men were doing anything that interfered with the business.”

Merchants at the shopping center, which has about 18 businesses, voiced mixed feelings Wednesday about the arrests, with many saying that they profit from trade the laborers bring to their stores.

“We all complained when it got to the point that there were 50 to 100 people milling about because some customers would not come in,” said the manager of a beauty salon in the center who asked that her name not be used. “But I don’t think I would have pressed charges on anybody, even then. They contribute to our economy, and they are also misused over here. It’s not a one-sided thing.”

An official of Winchell’s Donut House, which has a store at the corner of 17th Street and Placentia Avenue, said a customer called police to the store recently to complain about harassment by dayworkers, but apparently no arrest was made.

“We did not make the initial call, but the police were called out,” said Wanda Lee, a vice president for Winchell’s.

Lee said Winchell’s has received numerous complaints from customers concerning day laborers congregating around stores but would not consider making citizen’s arrests.

“From a philosophical standpoint, a great many of our customers and employees are Hispanic, and we have some insight into that population,” Lee said. “Also, we would be concerned about the liability issue. They would have to be disturbing the peace or doing something clearly illegal.”


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