Aug 8, 2022 - Politics & Policy

California county's cops targeting Asians in traffic stops, lawsuit alleges

Photo of a movie theater
The California Theatre in Dunsmuir, a town located in Siskiyou County, California. Photo: Brian Nguyen/Sacramento Bee/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

More than 28% of drivers stopped in 2021 by sheriff’s deputies in one California county were Asian American even though Asians make up about 2% of its adult population, according to a new lawsuit filed by four Asian Americans.

Driving the news: The class-action suit, which comes as the U.S. struggles to confront a sustained surge in anti-Asian hate and discrimination, alleges that Siskiyou County officials and law enforcement have threatened, targeted and intimidated Hmong Americans and other Asian Americans in an effort to drive them out of the area.

Details: The lawsuit claims Siskikyou County officials and the Siskiyou sheriff "used widespread racial profiling in traffic stops, restricted access to water making it difficult for Asian American residents to live, and placed unlawful liens to dispossess Asian Americans of their land."

  • The sheriff's department target Asian American drivers in traffic stops at a rate 12 times greater than the Asian American driving-age population, according to the complaint.
  • County data also shows 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 complaint states.
  • A policy barring the transportation of more than 100 gallons of water without a special permit was applied only to roads surrounding Asian American neighborhoods, while 80% of property liens related to unpaid cannabis cultivation fines were issued against Asian Americans, per the complaint.
  • Plaintiffs also allege 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.

Between the lines: The alleged discrimination "has its roots in anti-Asian racism in Siskiyou dating back to the 1800s," notes the complaint, which pointed to California's history of violence against Asians and enacting anti-Chinese policies.

The big picture: Siskiyou County is home to roughly 45,000 people today. Of those, 85% of residents are white and 1.7% are Asian American, according to the latest U.S. Census.

  • Many in the region are Hmong immigrants who came to the U.S. as refugees after being recruited to fight in a CIA-sanctioned operation during the Vietnam War.
  • When the U.S. pulled out of Laos, they left behind many Hmong people who were persecuted by Communist forces. Thousands died, and thousands more fled to refugee camps before making their way to America.
  • Hmong Americans have spoken out before against local law enforcement. After sheriff's deputies shot and killed a Hmong man while he was trying to flee the Lava fire, community members rallied in protest to demand accountability.

Worth noting: The findings detailed in the complaint are the result of a yearlong investigation that included interviews with community members, public records requests and reviews of thousands of Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Department documents.

  • The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus and Covington & Burling LLP. 
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