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Food vendors add protest to the menu

Operators accuse police of harassment, but officials say they are enforcing long-ignored laws.

January 18, 2007|Adrian G. Uribarri | Times Staff Writer

In the year since he started selling hot dogs in downtown Los Angeles, street vendor Eliseo Cruz said, he has been forced to shell out $35 for parking tickets on most days. For Cruz, it was the cost of doing business on a street corner with enough foot traffic to keep his sales profitable.

But now he often gets two and sometimes three tickets per day, so the cost is adding up.

"I wish they would just let us work," Cruz said. "We rely on this business to pay bills."

So on Wednesday morning, Cruz joined dozens of other hot dog vendors on the steps of City Hall to protest what they say is an aggressive campaign to crack down on their businesses.

Some held up signs in English and Spanish that read, "Stop the Police Harassment" and "Respect the Right to Work."

The vendors allege that police and city officials have moved beyond citing vendors without business licenses to arresting cart owners and impounding their equipment. They speculate that the tougher enforcement is largely due to complaints from nearby fast-food restaurants and the influx of downtown residents.

"They've been really heavy-handed in their enforcement," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which is urging curtailed enforcement and a change in city law. Salas questioned why the city is punishing vendors who pay license fees and taxes and pass health inspections.

"If you don't want sidewalk vendors, why are you giving them permits?" she asked.

Police Capt. Andrew Smith, who oversees the 401 officers who patrol downtown, said the department's enforcement policies had not changed but that there had been an increase in patrols. In September, 50 additional officers were assigned to downtown, which includes the city's fashion district, where many hot dog vendors cater to hungry shoppers.

"For a long time, a lot of people thought that anything goes in this part of town," he said. "Now, we have a sufficient police force in this area to catch all of the crimes going on here."

Smith said police usually warn vendors before issuing citations for violations such as taking up too much sidewalk space or not moving carts every hour, a legal requirement for catering vehicles. In addition, he said, the stepped-up enforcement "started out with a huge education campaign," including warnings and group meetings with vendors.

As part of that campaign, officials issued a notice that advocates call the "Jan. 18 ultimatum." Starting today, police will strictly enforce a state code that allows officers to remove vehicles without a motor.

But vendors said police have been harassing them for months.

Elizabeth Palacios said officers impounded one of her three carts Dec. 14 and another one nine days later. In each case, she said, the officers would not give her a chance to demonstrate that the cart's motor worked.

"I said they didn't have a right," she said. "They laughed and said, 'Then get a lawyer.' "

Palacios said the fees to retrieve both carts totaled $386.

In a press release, advocates complained of discrimination, alleging that police "have taken it upon themselves to act as federal immigration cops, consistently asking vendors about their documentation status and sometimes accusing legal permanent residents of using fake IDs."

But Smith said that a misunderstanding probably arose from officers asking for identification when they wrote citations. "We can't issue a ticket without identifying who they are," he said.

Although Smith rejected a request from vendors for a reprieve on enforcement during the Christmas holidays, he described a Wednesday afternoon meeting with organizers as cordial.

"We agreed to work together to make sure that everybody knows what the rules are," he said, adding that police would work with the city attorney to draft a bilingual statement that would be understandable to everyone.

"I'm pretty sure they know what the rules are," he said, "but the rules haven't been enforced that strictly in the past."

adrian.uribarri@latimes.com

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