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Santa Monica Pier Street Vendor Files Civil Rights Lawsuit Against City Over Towed Cars

1:08 PM PDT on August 9, 2022

    via Santa Monica Close Up/YouTube

    A Santa Monica Pier vendor is suing the City of Santa Monica in federal court.

    The class action civil rights lawsuit, filed on July 28 by Reyes Contreras Murcia, alleges that the Fourth Amendment rights (prohibiting unlawful search and seizure, and establishing warrant requirements) of low-income Black and Brown drivers are being violated through the City of Santa Monica's vehicle seizure policy, citing the illegal towing of vehicles that belong to unlicensed drivers and the steep, arbitrary fees pushed on them to get their vehicles out of impound.

    The lawsuit contends that warrants have not been produced to justify the seizure, towing, or continued holding of vehicles, and that these seizures deprive the affected of both their property and abilities to make a living. Santa Monica Police Chief Ramon Batista, All City Towing, and Santa Monica City Manager David White are all named as co-defendants in the litigation.

    According to the complaint, Murcia says he was "safely stopped" in his 2006 Chevy Tahoe in the Pier's parking lot, when Santa Monica police questioned him over a broken tail light. He was not able to produce a California driver's license, only an expired license from Mexico, while asserting that his car was not a traffic hazard. Murcia was allegedly not allowed to have his brother, who does possess a valid California's driver's license, come pick up the vehicle. The car was towed by All City and impounded, with Murcia facing a $159.90 fee for its release and a $1,128 30-day impound fee, in addition to the lost income by not having the sole vehicle he has.

    The car will not be released until the City of Santa Monica allows it. Meanwhile, the fees continue increasing and he believes the car could be sold to cover the impound fees, making him lose it forever.

    The suit is now asking a judge to have Murcia's car returned, in addition to damages and court costs. It's also asking that the city's vehicle seizure policy be ruled unconstitutional, with potential restitution for others affected by what the suit claims are Civil Right violations targeting "Black and Brown people, as well as people of low means."

    In response, the City of Santa Monica has released the following statement on its website:
    Statement on Reyes Murcia Lawsuit
    The City of Santa Monica is aware of the pending class action civil rights lawsuit against the City, which also names personnel within the Santa Monica Police Department and City Manager’s Office. Due to the pending litigation, the City is unable to provide details in response to inquiries related to this matter.
    The City of Santa Monica and Santa Monica Police Department are committed to the values of accountability, equity, inclusion, and safety, and to protecting and supporting communities of color in our City.
    Our police department is deeply committed to protecting our City in accordance with the U.S. Constitution and treating all with dignity and respect. Our officers are professional and compassionate and dedicate themselves to maintaining public safety while building trust in our community.
    The lawsuit appears to be another possible chapter in a brewing tension surrounding the City of Santa Monica and Santa Monica Pier vendors.
    A somewhat spurious article came out in April of 2021 from the right-leaning Santa Monica Observer alleging that a gang run by one "Murcia family" was operating a sort of protection racket involving 50 vendors on the Pier. The publisher of the Observer was sued by the City of Santa Monica over claims of false advertising, and a spokesperson for the City told L.A. TACO that the SMPD had "no information indicating there is organized gang activity related to vending on the Santa Monica Pier. ”
    The article followed an actual incident that involved a fight between vendors on the Pier, in which two among the multiple people arrested have the last name Murcia.
    A city ordinance in August of 2021 put an official ban on anyone using combustible fuel on or within 25 feet of the Pier to cook, heat, or light anything without a permit from the fire marshal, following allegations that vendors were "lighting cooking fires, spilling grease into storm drains, and overflowing trash bins with waste."
    By that fall, videos were proliferating quickly on YouTube showing Santa Monica police and Pier security in frequent confrontation with vendors as well as intervening in disputes between Pier and Pier-adjacent vendors.
    At the start of this year, a multi-department task force (including Santa Monica Police Officers, Santa Monica Fire Code Enforcement Officers, Santa Monica Code Enforcement Officers, Public Works employees, private security guards from Allied, and deputies with Los Angeles County Health Department ) was operating on the Pier, issuing citations to violators and targeting  unlicensed vendors in an effort to oust them from the 112-year-old wooden structure.
    As part of the task force's initial efforts, Santa Monica Police arrested 18-year-old Michelle Antonia Murcia, as she stood in front of Hot Dog On a Stick, over an "assault with a deadly weapon" that occurred in November 2021 at the base of the stairs below the Pier's Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. location. Murcia is accused of pushing a hotdog cart full of hot oil at another vendor during a confrontation, and spilling it on her hands and arms, before leaving the scene prior to the victim receiving treatment for her burns.
    In May of this year, L.A. TACO reported on Santa Monica Senator Ben Allen and his proposed SB-1290 Bill, which would allow cities to re-criminalize street vendors and increase their fines, reversing protections granted them by SB-946 (intended to decriminalize street vending through issuing legal permits for the practice), portending dark times for street vendors the nation over.
    Today, roughly two weeks after Reyes Murcia has filed his lawsuit, Santa Monica Mirror is reporting that the City Council is exploring different ways to crack down on unpermitted vending on the Pier, citing such claims as "preserving community values," and blaming vendors for individual corn kernels found in the sand that beach cleaning machines can't pick up, along with the typical "code violation" speak that includes allegations of "selling food not up to health code, blocking fire lanes, and using unregulated combustible fuels.
    While corn kernels in the sand hardly seem as big a problem for the splendor of the coast as, say, barrels of illegally dumped DDT or 17,000 million gallons of spilled raw sewage, it seems evident that Santa Monica has declared war on unpermitted vending.
    And whether or not the towing of vendor cars is part of the city's arsenal in that fight or not, it appears, in the case of Reyes Murcia, one vendor may be attempting to fire a shot back.

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