ACLU, other groups sue Costa Mesa over day laborers

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Day laborers who stand on sidewalks in Costa Mesa to look for work complain they’re being targeted by police. Their complaints have drawn the attention of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and several other groups. They’ve joined together to sue Costa Mesa over its anti-solicitation ordinance.

The groups filed the lawsuit in federal court this morning, at about the same time as roughly three-dozen day laborers marched to Costa Mesa City Hall and chanted for a few minutes out front.

The workers held signs in English and Spanish that read “Work is a Human Right” and “Stop Police Harassment.” They're upset that Costa Mesa is enforcing an ordinance that prohibits people from soliciting work or contributions by standing on a sidewalk and waving down passing cars.

"This lawsuit is about the First Amendment," says Thomas Saenz, the president and general counsel for the immigrant rights group, MALDEF. "It’s about everyone’s right to free speech in Costa Mesa. It’s about an ordinance that unconstitutionally restricts the rights of some — specifically day laborers — from engaging in the same free speech rights that everyone else can on the sidewalks of the city."

The civil rights groups point to Costa Mesa police running an undercover sting of day laborers in September. Several illegal immigrants were deported as a result.

But Saenz says police aren’t targeting others who also violate the law, like students trying to raise money.

"If they’re out on a Costa Mesa sidewalk, holding a sign that says, 'Car Wash: Donations Welcome,' they’re violating this ordinance. Or if you have an owner of a small lunch shop who wants to advertise his special on hamburgers and sends someone out with a quintessential sandwich board, walking along the sidewalk with a sign that says, 'Hamburgers today $1,' that person and that business are in violation of this ordinance," Saenz says. "In fact, despite the fact that that’s how it’s written, it’s only enforced against day laborers."

Rigoberto Valladares is one of those day laborers. The Mexican immigrant who came here seven years ago says work’s already slow because of the economy. He says Costa Mesa Police harass the day laborers.

"They tell me, you know, 'Go home, move away,'" says Valladares through a translator. "And then what I do is just move because even if I work, it’s not going to be enough for me to pay the fine that he gives me."

That fine can be several hundred dollars.

A city spokesman declined to comment on the case, deferring all questions to Costa Mesa Police Chief Christopher Shawkey. The chief said he couldn't comment specifically about the lawsuit.

"Day laborers have been here before I’ve been here and we don’t harass them at all," he says.

Shawkey says his officers respond to complaints from neighbors — 114 complaints about day laborers between January and September of last year.

"We do respond to complaints like we do for graffiti and gang activity and all other kinds of criminal activity in the city," Shawkey explains.

But Chief Shawkey says he doesn’t know of any arrests of people walking on the sidewalk with sandwich boards or car wash signs.

"They have a point there that under the city ordinance there’s other types of solicitation that’s against the law," Shawkey says. "It’s a little grayer area because they are allowed to have signs. It becomes 'What do they do with the sign?' So, you know, at what point are you waving a sign that it becomes a violation of the ordinance versus if someone’s stepping into the street, that’s certainly easy to determine and that’s a clear violation."

Shawkey says he’s been talking with the city to possibly refine the ordinance.

In the meantime, the federal lawsuit to knock out the ordinance will move forward.

Cities with similar laws have faced similar lawsuits, including Lake Forest and Redondo Beach. Ultimately, the suits forced the cities to ditch their anti-solicitation ordinances.

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