DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES -- Street vendors in the trendy Fashion District of downtown Los Angeles sued the city and the neighborhood's business improvement district, accusing them of illegally destroying their carts and other property, harassment and threatening some with deportation.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court Wednesday by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and other civil rights groups.
Street vending is illegal in Los Angeles, though common. An effort is underway to legalize the practice.
Officers with the business improvement district work with the Los Angeles Police Department to seize and destroy street vendors' property "as a sort of extrajudicial street punishment, meted out against the vendors as the officers see fit," according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit accuses the city of unreasonable seizure, violations of due process and interference by threat, intimidation or coercion. It seeks undisclosed financial compensation and an order to stop the city from punishing street vendors.
Kent Smith, executive director of the Fashion District Business Improvement District, said street vending is inappropriate in the neighborhood and nearby downtown Los Angeles because the sidewalks are too narrow and busy, creating a safety hazard.
He said the practice also creates liabilities for property owners and has become a nuisance for the growing number of residents.
Smith said the business improvement district is open to discussing other protocols regarding street vending and that he was disappointed about the lawsuit.
"It's hard not to find this a little intimidating," he said. "They're kind of acting as a judge and jury rather than meeting with us openly."
The lawsuit claims that street vendors have been meeting with city leaders and police about their concerns but "have no choice but to bring this fight into the courtroom."
Aureliano Santiago, a street vendor who filed the lawsuit, said authorities have confiscated his ice cream and taco carts so many times that he's lost count, and each time it happens, he's out about $300.
"We're terrified when we see the police coming or when the security guards come to confiscate our property," Santiago said in Spanish.
He said $300 isn't a lot to the city, but it's a lot to him.