Man Sues City of Lancaster and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for False Arrest, Violation of Rights

Sheriff Villanueva – Getty Image

By Lizet Gonzalez and William McCurry

LOS ANGELES – A disabled Black man, Leroy Butts, is suing the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LACSD) and City of Lancaster for violation of his rights to due process, equal protection, excessive fines, and illegal expenditure and waste of funds after he said he was falsely ticketed.

The pleading notes that Butts, 68, is unable to work. Since he is unable to work, his income only comes from Supplemental Security Income. Butts has experienced homelessness for several years until October 2019 when he secured housing in an affordable housing unit in the city of Lancaster.

According to the lawsuit, on August 22, 2019, Butts was in American Heroes Park in the city of Lancaster handing out “Know Your Rights” pamphlets to educate other unhoused people about their rights. While he was handing out these fliers he was drinking a grape soda.

At approximately 2 p.m., Butts recognized officers from the LACSD approach a group of unhoused persons, remembering they previously ticketed unhoused people in the park. Butts informed unhoused persons of their rights to stay in the park. His grape soda was still in his hands.

One of the officers, Andrew Lizarde, told the unhoused persons that they had to leave the park and referenced a few tents that were erected in the park. Lizarde asked the persons if they belonged to any of them and they said they were not their tents. Butts suggested that the owners of the tents might have left the park.

The court pleading notes that Lizarde responded to Butts by calling him a “smartass.” He then pointed to a beer can on the ground and told Butts that it belonged to him and that he will be cited for drinking in public. Lizarde never saw Butts consume alcohol in public, nor had any facts to conclude that Butts possessed or consumed alcohol in public.

The officers then proceeded to detain Butts. Lizarde was armed, so Butts did not feel free to leave this coerced situation. Although Butts was lawfully in the park, the officers issued him a $500 citation. While Lizarde issued this citation, he looked at Butts, smirked, and said, “You know this is a $500 ticket

Butts attempted to appeal this citation through Lancaster’s administrative citation process, but the city required him to pay the fine before he could have any means of appealing. Butts could not afford to pay the citation since $500 is more than half of his monthly income from the Supplemental Security Income.

In 2014, California voters passed Proposition 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act. Proposition 47 reclassified six low-level drug and property felonies to misdemeanors in order to reduce spending on incarceration.

The Lancaster City Council enacted Ordinance No. 1001, the City of Lancaster’s Administrative Penalties for State Offenses ordinance that expressed the City’s intent to implement an administrative program more punitive than the criminal court system and authorized law enforcement to issue administrative citations imposing fines of $500 to $1,000 for the state offenses Proposition 47 reclassified.

Butts, according to his lawsuit, is subject to a city “pay-to-appeal” that requires a pre-payment of the fine to obtain any appeal hearing. In Butts’ case, if he is found not in violation the payment will be returned. If the payment is not made within 30 days, the City threatens to block his driver’s license renewal, file a claim against their income tax return, and impose additional fees.

Butts wrote a letter to the City Attorney of the City of Lancaster explaining the issues of his case and his inability to pay the citation. Butts asked the fee to be waived and provide a hearing based on whether the citation was properly issued. He never received a response.

On Sept. 23, 2019, he received a letter from the City of Lancaster’s Assistant City Attorney informing him that he was a day late on his payment of the citation and that the city would pursue various means of collecting the payment, including the blocking of his driver’s license renewal and filing a claim against his income tax refund.

The lawsuit summary then noted that on Oct. 16, 2019, Butts received a letter from Innovative Collection Services, a third-party debt collection agency, regarding the $500 fee he hasn’t paid and imposed an additional $150 fee. Butts was unable to pay either fine.

Butts is suing the city of Lancaster and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, charging they deprived him and did not ensure his right to due process, excessive fines, and illegal expenditure.

Butts argues he was denied due process by the city by requiring full prepayment of the citations in order to have an appeal hearing, and therefore violating “its duty by enforcing and attempting to collect citation penalties imposed without due process.” The City was “creating an unreasonable risk of erroneous deprivation” to Butts and his rights to a fair and due process of the law.

Not providing a “waiver of citation or related fees for those unable to pay, places an unconstitutional burden on the poor,” the pleading states, suggesting the City should “first determine if individuals are able to afford to pay the citation penalties and fees before imposing them. Requiring unhoused individuals and others unable to afford to pay monetary penalties, violated their rights by not providing the necessary waiver for those unable to pay.”

The City, Butts insists, also took punitive measures by sending unpaid citations “to collection and imposes additional fees,” violating the California Constitution by using “punitive measures on individuals due to their poverty” and imposing excessive fines on them. In addition, the “citation fines are grossly disproportionate to the cited conduct.”

The City’s continued use of an invalid administrative citation is a waste of public funds, a waste of time, and an illegal expenditure, Butts asserts, claiming his constitutional rights of protected speech and right to travel were violated when he was stopped from practicing his right to free speech and told to leave the park.

Butts asks the city and LACSD follow the California Constitution by ceasing to issue citations of administrative citation program, cease the collection of debts of administrative citation program, and “discharge and recall from any third-party debt.”

His suit charges the issuance of citations and debt collection “an illegal expenditure and waste.”

He asks “for compensatory, statutory, and punitive damages to be awarded…reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs and any other such relief as the Court deems just and equitable.”

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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