Business & Economy

Latest approach to ticketing tripping up some LA street vendors

FILE: On Alvarado Street across from MacArthur Park, street vendors set up shop to sell clothing, tech gadgets and more.
FILE: On Alvarado Street across from MacArthur Park, street vendors set up shop to sell clothing, tech gadgets and more.
Ken Scarboro/KPCC

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Some Los Angeles vendors have been cited for unauthorized selling on the streets as part of a recently implemented city program that relies on administrative citations designed to discourage nuisance behaviors, such as public drinking.

The citations that carry a fine of $250 for the first offense have been quietly issued citywide since spring of last year, while a separate, long-running proposal to create a legal street vending program in Los Angeles awaits action by city officials.

Referred to as ACE, or Administrative Citation Enforcement, the citation program was adopted by the City Council in June 2013 as a pilot program and began a gradual rollout in December 2014.

Under its provisions, animal control officers can issue the administrative citations for unlicensed pets. Police officers can issue the citations for minor offenses such as drinking in public, loud noise, illegal skateboarding, and "illegal vending," according to the Los Angeles City Attorney's office.

The citations are processed in City Hall, not in the courts where traditional tickets can take months to resolve. They are also processed more quickly: Anyone cited has 20 days from the mailing of the citation to either pay the fine or appeal it, according to the City Attorney's office. If the first appeal is rejected, they have just 15 days to seek a new appeal before a hearing officer in City Hall.

A lack of information is causing confusion and financial problems among street vendors, who have been increasingly receiving the citations since late last year, said Greg Bonett, an attorney with the pro bono law firm Public Counsel in Los Angeles.

"We've had vendors who are getting these tickets, and it's all in English," Bonett said. "A lot of people don't speak English and they think it's a ticket, because it came from a police officer."

Bonett said the vendors go to the Metropolitan Courthouse to take care of the citations, but are told they are in the wrong place. "So it can be confusing, and really, very few of them make it to a hearing," he said.

More confusing is that vendors are also still receiving traditional tickets, Bonett said, making it tough for vendors to differentiate between the two.

Fines for ACE citations issued by the LAPD start at $250, according to the City Attorney's office. They can then double and triple to $1,000 with each subsequent offense. Any violations after that point could be charged as a criminal offense.

According to the City Attorney's office, 252 administrative citations have been issued for illegal vending so far between Jan. 1, 2015 to April 22, 2016. Illegal vending is the second most-cited category of offense; the top category, drinking in public, accounted for 1,500 citations issued.

The ACE program isn't aimed at street vendors, but rather broad "quality of life" problems that weren't being adequately addressed, said Paul Michael Neuman, a spokesman for City Council member Paul Koretz, who championed the ACE plan.

"People in the city have a lot of quality of life concerns," Neuman said. "They see things that are transgressions, violations that have an impact on their quality of life, their neighborhood, their community, themselves. What do you do about those violations, and is any kind of appropriate and effective enforcement possible?"

Neuman used loud parties an an example: A police officer can knock on the door and ask the offenders to tone it down or they can issue an administrative citation. The idea is to provide a middle ground for officers to handle minor offenses that don't rise to criminality.

Until recently, with many minor offenses, Neuman said the choices had been either doing nothing or "filing some kind of charge that may seem  too severe" and ends up languishing in court.

Similar administrative citation enforcement programs have been used in California cities, including Sacramento and San Diego, where the focus is issuing citations for noise complaints and loud parties.

Advocates for Los Angeles street vendors said the ACE program is being applied to vendors who earn very little: They can more easily raise the money to pay for a traditional ticket over a few months if it's processed in court as compared to a citation that must be resolved in 20 days' time. 

Bonett said those who try to fight the administrative citations must either pay the fines up front or prove they are low-income. He said either is difficult for people who work in a cash economy. Many times, vendors run out of time to fight them, according to Bonett.

He said the ACE citations present a due-process issue. By the time most people figure out what to do, the 20 days are upon them and they have no choice but to pay, he said. "Most people never receive a hearing," Bonett said. "They miss their opportunity to challenge it."

An estimated 50,000 street vendors work in the Los Angeles area. While they are allowed to apply for county health permits, they can't legally sell their wares on city public sidewalks.

The City Hall proposal to create a licensing program for street vendors was introduced in 2014 and is pending a committee vote.