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L.A. city attorney toughens tactics against scalpers

City Atty. Carmen Trutanich seeks an injunction, often used as an anti-gang tool, to bar prolific offenders from sports and theater venues.

August 09, 2012|By Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times
  • A scalper outside Dodger Stadium — one of the venues listed in the proposed injunction — holds a sign indicating that he has tickets to sell to potential buyers.
A scalper outside Dodger Stadium — one of the venues listed in the… (Los Angeles Times )

For years, prosecutors have used court injunctions to prevent gang members, drug dealers and even graffiti vandals from congregating in certain areas.

But now, the L.A. city attorney's office wants to use the powerful legal tool on a decidedly different target: ticket scalpers.

City Atty. Carmen Trutanich filed court papers this week asking a judge to bar 17 prolific ticket scalpers from being anywhere near Dodger Stadium, Staples Center, the Nokia Theatre, the Coliseum and USC's Galen Center. Trutanich said the unusual injunction reflects how difficult it has been for law enforcement to clamp down on scalpers.

It is already a misdemeanor to sell tickets above face value or make such transactions on a public street. Police have tried aggressive enforcement during games and concerts, created special task forces and even used decoys to sniff out illicit sellers. Nothing, he said, seems to work.

"These scalpers rip off unsuspecting fans, hurt legitimate businesses and deprive the city of taxes owed to it, which ultimately harms all city residents," Trutanich said Thursday. "They make it more costly for all of us to cheer for our favorite teams."

Scalping is an issue in cities across the country, and there have been many efforts to crack down. But the city attorney's office said this marks the first time that a gang-like geographic injunction has been tried. While the court papers name 17 scalpers, Trutanich said the idea is to add more names as police arrest more people.

The injunction puzzled some legal experts, who said restricting where people can be is a serious move that is commonly reserved for violent criminals.

"The problem here is they are trying to criminalize activities that would not otherwise be deemed harmful to people," said USC law professor Jody Armour. "These people aren't committing violent crimes.... How can it be in the public's interest to make it harder for them to find tickets?"

Armour and others said that the biggest beneficiaries of the injunction are likely to be the sports and entertainment venues themselves, who have long complained about scalpers. Indeed, both USC and AEG, the owners of Staples Center, filed court declarations in support of Trutanich's injunction.

Jose Eskenazi, an associate athletic director at USC, said the university distributed football and basketball tickets free to several children's community groups but that scalpers obtained those tickets and sold them "at enormous profits."

Lee Zeidman, general manager of Staples Center/Nokia Theatre and L.A. Live, said in a separate declaration that scalpers "frequently adopt aggressive and oftentimes intimidating tactics.... To the extent that ticket scalpers are allowed to create an environment that makes guests of ours feel uncomfortable, harassed or threatened, that jeopardizes our ability to attract those guests to our property."

In court papers, prosecutors accuse scalpers of endangering citizens, creating traffic hazards and diverting scarce police resources.

"Defendants personally act as magnets for theft, robbery, and crimes of violence," the filing states. "Areas with high levels of illegal ticket sales have disproportionately high levels of theft, robbery, crimes of violence and narcotics sales and use."

The court filing also claims that scalpers are "unfair competition" for legitimate ticket-selling vendors.

Those named in the injunction have, collectively, been arrested, cited or contacted by police nearly 100 times in the past four years, according to city prosecutors. Several of those named were served with copies of the proposed injunction while illegally selling tickets outside the Nokia Theatre and Dodger Stadium, officials said.

One of those named in the injunction is Melton Strauss. His father, Melton Strauss Sr., said he doesn't understand what the fuss is about.

"He has been selling tickets for 10 to 15 years. He goes to all the stadiums," he said. "I told him to move somewhere out of state. There are plenty of places you can do it."

If a judge approves the injunction, the defendants would face six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine for each violation of it.

At Dodger Stadium, for example, the named scalpers would not be allowed within a wide swath of the stadium property stretching from Sunset Boulevard on the south to Riverside Drive on the north.

Defendants may petition the court to modify the terms of the injunction if they sign a declaration that they were not arrested or charged with any crime in the past two years and are gainfully employed.

There was some debate among legal experts over whether scalping in protected under the 1st Amendment.

"There is a fine line between scalping and communication," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School. "It becomes worrisome when a city begins to extend the idea of injunctions to more and more groups."

But Stan Goldman, also a Loyola law professor, sees fewer free speech issues with the injunction.

"It's not a 1st Amendment issue, it's really a licensing issue," Goldman said. "You can require a store to pay taxes or a licensing fee. But ticket scalpers are working outside the law."

Prosecutors said that during their legal research, they found that railroads had successfully used injunctions in the early 20th century to prevent scalpers from reselling train tickets at higher prices.

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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