A group of Los Angeles street vendors is suing the city along with the L.A. Fashion District Business Improvement District, a city-backed non-profit.
The vendors, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and other legal groups, say the business district's private security and cleanup force works with police to confiscate and destroy their carts and merchandise.
The lawsuit charges that disposing of vendors' property in this manner is illegal.
"This is a clear violation of the street vendors' constitutional rights," said Michael Kaufman, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. "Both their fourth amendment right against unreasonable seizures, and their right to due process."
Street vendors who work in the Fashion District downtown refer to the bicycle-mounted Fashion District BID force as "los amarillos," the yellow ones, for the yellow shirts they wear.
Aureliano Santiago, an ice cream vendor and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he had his most recent run-in with the amarillos last month.
“They came and said not to move our carts, because they were being confiscated by the health department," Santiago said in Spanish. "I told him, you’re security, you’re not with the health department .”
But in the end, he said, he had to watch as his cart was taken away.
The lawsuit alleges that vendors' property - carts, coolers, umbrellas, food and so forth - is routinely tossed "in the back of a BID trash truck" and that vendors have no opportunity to reclaim it.
According to the complaint, the "LAPD and BID Act with no judicial oversight and without affording the vendors any way to challenge this punishment or seek the return of their unlawfully seized property before it is discarded or destroyed."
Attorneys for the vendors say they should be provided with a receipt that allows them to reclaim their impounded property, but they aren't.
“They are not providing any process by which people can get their property back, they are just hauling it away and trashing it," Kaufman said.
LAPD officials said they couldn't comment on pending litgation. But Fashion District Business Improvement District officials said the allegations are overblown.
"We’re not in the business of trying to enforce regulation against sidewalk vendors," said BID executive director Kent Smith.
Smith said BID bike patrols don't call the cops on street vendors, and that their main concern is cleaning up trash. He says BID officers haul away property that street vendors abandon.
"When county health comes down to the district, which they do periodically, what most sidewalk vendors do is they run, and they abandon their property," Smith said. "Well, that property has to be picked up, so we pick it up and we dispose of it."
The BID released a statement in response to the lawsuit saying that "our policy is not to confiscate or unlawfully take property from any individual. We do not want to unlawfully seize the property of anyone, including un-permitted vendors."
The lawsuit alleges, however, that LAPD officers working with BID patrols "will threaten vendors with citation or arrest if they do not allow the property to be confiscated."
The lawsuit comes as Los Angeles city officials debate whether to make street vending legal. On Wednesday, the city's Economic Development Committee weighed different options for legalizing street vending, which included a citywide blanket policy, street vending district, and a hybrid model that would let different communities decide how much or little street vending they want.
Committee members favored the third version, and asked various city departments to report back with details on how such a plan might work.