Seven years ago, Los Angeles leaders decided to create a new, alternative system to handle minor violations of the Municipal Code such as drinking in public, riding a bicycle on the sidewalk or letting a dog run off leash.
Under the Administrative Citation Enforcement program, such violators are ticketed and fined instead of facing a criminal charge, avoiding the repercussions of a criminal record.
Now the city is being sued over the program by a skid row group, which argues that the program denies people a chance at a fair hearing where they can present evidence.
The system also provides no chance to seek a lower fine or community service based on financial hardship, according to the lawsuit. And the suit also contends that the program is not accessible to disabled people.
One of the plaintiffs is Larry Dunn, who was cited in September for having an open container of beer in public.
The handwritten citation indicated that Dunn would get more information in the mail within two weeks, but that never happened, according to the lawsuit. Dunn turned to the Los Angeles Community Action Network, a skid row advocacy group that is now the other plaintiff in the suit, for help at a pro bono legal clinic.
The 66-year-old “explained that he did not understand the administrative ticket and could not easily respond to it because he didn’t use the internet” and his disability made it difficult to talk on the phone, according to the complaint.
By the time he sought help, he had missed a deadline to respond — one that was not listed in his initial citation — and was facing a $300 fine plus other possible penalties, the suit says.
“For individuals who are disabled, homeless, and indigent, the program is unnavigable at every step, setting up unwarranted and unlawful barriers to compliance with disability laws,” the lawsuit states.
The suit was filed Wednesday by civil rights attorney Carol Sobel, who has repeatedly sued the city over the rights of homeless people. It seeks to stop the city from issuing more citations without adequate notice and hearings.
Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, said the city would review the complaint and declined to comment further Wednesday.
Los Angeles city officials have raised concerns about the program before: More than three years ago, Councilmen Curren Price, Jose Huizar and David Ryu backed a motion asking for recommendations on how to improve the program, stating that the hearing process is “problematic.”
Asking for a hearing “requires an individual to pay upfront costs and if the citation is upheld, pay additional administrative costs,” the motion backed by Price, Huizar and Ryu stated. “These hurdles lead to many individuals not using the administrative hearing process, especially when they face financial constraints.”
The motion suggested the city “consider setting fines based upon an individual’s ability to pay, and allow for community service as an alternative to payment.” The proposal was never heard at City Hall and expired more than a year ago.
In the last budget year, the city issued thousands of administrative citations and collected nearly $1.2 million in such fines, according to a December report. An additional $1.58 million in fines had been levied that year but left unpaid.