‘Sweeping Campaign to Harass’ Asian Americans: California cops sued for targeted traffic stops

‘Sweeping Campaign to Harass’ Asian Americans: California cops sued for targeted traffic stops

According to a new California lawsuit, hate crimes against members of the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community are not the only form of rising racism. Filed in Sacramento federal court on Wednesday, a class-action lawsuit against Siskiyou County and its sheriff alleges racism in traffic stops, access to water, and enforcement of cannabis-related property liens.

The lawsuit filed by four Asian Americans accuses Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue and other county officials of “a sweeping campaign to harass and intimidate Hmong and other Asian Americans.” It also alleges that the plaintiffs have been wrongfully blamed for criminal activity involving cannabis cultivation and that officials have made it “difficult or impossible for Asian Americans to live and travel peacefully in Siskiyou County,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

The lawsuit uses traffic data analyzed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Northern California, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, and Covington & Burling LLP to support its claim of racial disparities.

According to the data, more than 28% of drivers stopped by Siskiyou County sheriff’s deputies in 2021 were Asian American, even though attorneys found that only about 2% of the county’s adult population was Asian.

Additionally, Asian American drivers were 25 times more likely than white drivers to be searched during traffic stops. County data also confirmed that the sheriff’s department stops Asian Americans during the day, when a driver’s race is “readily visible,” at a rate nearly 60% higher than its nighttime rate.

The lawsuit also alleges that county officials targeted Asian American residents for property liens related to unpaid fines for cannabis cultivation. According to the lawsuit, more than 80% of the liens were issued against Asian American property owners. An ordinance barring the transportation of more than 100 gallons of water without a permit was also applied only on roads surrounding Asian American neighborhoods in drought-stricken rural area, the lawsuit stated.

According to the Los Angeles Times, a plaintiff in the lawsuit identified as Mai Nou Vang noted she has been unfairly stopped and searched by sheriff’s officials while driving and believes she is likely to be targeted again because of her race.

The lawsuit alleges that a lien issued by the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors has not only decreased the value of her land but interfered with her ability to get financing and put her at risk of foreclosure.

The lawsuit also cites other incidents of racism the county has perpetrated against its Asian American residents, noting that the alleged discrimination “has its roots in anti-Asian racism in Siskiyou dating back to the 1800s.” It not only references California’s history of violence against Asians and enacting anti-Chinese policies, but alleges that county supervisors and sheriff’s officials treat Asian Americans “as unwelcome compared to their white, longer-established neighbors.” 

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs noted that county officials have characterized Asian Americans as people “who thumb their nose at our society, at our way of life” and singled out “the Hmong residents” at a board of supervisors meeting.

“Like some of their most vocal constituents, they view Asian Americans as a monolithic group of which every single person is part of a violent drug cartel and blame the county’s widespread cannabis cultivation on Asian Americans in explicitly racialized terms”, the lawsuit alleges.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, plaintiffs believe anti-Asian policing began several years ago but increased with Donald Trump’s language and use of “the Chinese flu.” According to the Chronicle, then-Sheriff Jon Lopey described all Asian Americans as pot growers and told county supervisors in January 2019 that he would assign his officers to conduct traffic stops in the county. The policy—which was not present before—continued even after Jeremiah LaRue was appointed sheriff last year. LaRue has been quoted blaming Asians for overall crimes for years.

The lawsuit even includes a quote by the sheriff on how he feels about Asian Americans in the county: “I just wish they’d contribute better … It’s like a third world country out there and that cannot be okay. Forget about cannabis, it’s just about quality of life and how people are living out there.”

While California began requiring large law enforcement agencies to collect demographic data about every person stopped by their officers in 2018, Siskiyou County has not yet been required to report similar racial profiling data to the state, the Chronicle reported.

The lawsuit follows a lengthy investigation that included interviews with community members, public records requests, and reviews of thousands of board of supervisors and Sheriff’s Department documents. It emphasizes abuse against Hmong immigrants who came to the U.S. as refugees after being recruited to fight in a CIA-sanctioned operation during the Vietnam War.

Hmong immigrants in the county also made headlines last year after sheriff’s deputies shot and killed a Hmong man while he was trying to flee the Lava fire. Sobleej Kaub Hawj, father of three, was shot after making a wrong U-turn since cops alleged they felt threatened by him. The three officers who shot him were not held accountable. Their actions were deemed “perfectly appropriate, even in hindsight,” VICE reported.

At this time the suit does not seek damages. Instead, it seeks judicial findings that the county and its officers have engaged in discrimination and court orders against bias in traffic stops and water and lien policies. 

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