Skid row activists file lawsuit accusing city of stifling dissent
A federal civil rights lawsuit filed Monday accuses the city of Los Angeles of malicious prosecution for charging a skid row community organizer with assault after she blew an air horn during a demonstration.
City Atty. Carmen Trutanich charged Deborah Burton, 62, with misdemeanor assault and battery for allegedly blowing the horn in officials’ ears during a 2011 skid row protest. Burton was acquitted of all charges last July. The suit says the charges were aimed at stifling political dissent.
Police conspired with business leaders, distorted crime reports and lied on the witness stand to frame Burton for crimes she did not commit, the suit says.
City Atty. Mike Feuer, who succeeded Trutanich, said in an earlier interview that the Burton claim had no merit.
“We proceeded in that case in a highly professional way,” he said.
LAPD Lt. Andy Neiman said the department would not comment on a pending lawsuit.
The suit, brought by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles on behalf of Burton and the Los Angeles Community Action Network, also accuses police of harassing and intimidating group members and falsely arresting its leaders.
The actions were designed to silence the group’s protests against the displacement and “criminalization” of poor residents of skid row, the densest concentration of homeless and extremely low-income people in the country, the suit says.
“Many business interests and the City officials who support them apparently see the existence of high concentrations of poor people in the area, especially African American men and the highly visible homeless population, as an obstacle to planned business expansion and development,” says the suit.
Also named in the suit are the Downtown Industrial District Business Improvement District, whose security guards patrol skid row on bikes; Central City East Assn. and its former director, Estela Lopez, who ran the improvement district; the Los Angeles Police Department; Police Chief Charlie Beck; and Lt. Shannon Paulson.
“Really, the city should have been helping them fight against homelessness, not put every barrier in their way and blatantly violate their 1st Amendment rights,” said Legal Aid Foundation attorney Barbara Schultz.
The suit seeks an injunction to halt interference with L.A. Community Action Network’s civil and constitutional rights; a declaration that the rights of Burton and her group were violated; and general, special and punitive damages. It was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.