Justice Department Informs City of Lexington and Lexington Police Department That Automatically Jailing People for Unpaid Fines Violates Constitution
Hello. My name is Kristen Clarke, and I am the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. It is my honor to be joined today by U.S. Attorney E. Martin Estrada for the Central District of California.
Every person in this country is entitled to seek and access housing, free from discrimination. Yet the recent rise of so-called “crime-free” ordinances threaten this promise for far too many people. “Crime-free” ordinances are policies that often encourage or require landlords to evict tenant – and their families – based on alleged criminal activity, even if the offense is minor, or even in the absence of any arrest, charge or conviction. By some estimates, approximately 2,000 communities across at least 48 states have enacted some form of a “crime-free” program. Generally, these programs do not promote public safety. Rather, they have sometimes been enacted in response to growing racial diversity in communities. These programs may result in racial exclusion and reinforce racial residential segregation, thus undermining the goals of the Fair Housing Act and other federal civil rights laws. Indeed, these “crime free” programs often amplify the stark, documented racial disparities across our criminal legal system – in which, for example, Black individuals are arrested at five times the rate of white people – and bring those disparities to bear in the housing market. These programs can uproot lives and destabilize communities; often unjustly forcing people into homelessness and resulting in lost jobs, schooling and opportunities.
Hesperia, California, enacted one such “crime-free” rental housing program in 2015. And today, I am pleased to announce that the Justice Department has filed a consent order to resolve allegations of race and national origin discrimination by the City of Hesperia and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department related to the adoption and enforcement of that program. Today’s consent order resolves a 2019 federal lawsuit brought by the Justice Department that alleged that the City of Hesperia’s “crime-free” ordinance violated the Fair Housing Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This landmark agreement is historic: it is the Justice Department’s first settlement in a case challenging a “crime-free” ordinance and results in the full repeal of the program and nearly $1 million in monetary commitments. U.S. Attorney Estrada, our partner in this matter, will discuss the specific provisions of the settlement in greater detail shortly.
Let me now share a little bit more about this case.
Our lawsuit alleged that the City of Hesperia, with substantial support from the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department, enacted and enforced its ordinance to drive Black and Latinx renters out of their homes and out of Hesperia, and to discourage Black and Latinx applicants from moving to Hesperia. One City Councilmember said the purpose of the program was “to correct a demographical problem,” and that the people to be targeted by the ordinance were “no addition and of no value to this community, period.” Another City Councilmember explained that the ordinance’s purpose was to get landlords to remove “blight” from their rental units, and compared it to “call[ing] an exterminator out to kill roaches.” As our complaint makes clear, Hesperia’s ordinance was a blatantly discriminatory solution to a problem that didn’t exist.
Hesperia’s “crime free” program required all rental property owners to evict tenants that the Sheriff’s Department reported engaged in any purported “criminal activity” on or near the rental property – regardless of whether those allegations resulted in an arrest, charge or conviction. This meant evictions of entire families for conduct involving one tenant or even guests or estranged family members, evictions of survivors of domestic violence, and evictions in the absence of concrete evidence of criminal activity. The program also required all landlords to screen potential tenants through the Sheriff’s Department for any “violations” of the rules of the program in the past.
The program entrusted the Sheriff’s Department with tremendous power, latitude and discretion, all of which was used to disrupt the lives of Hesperia’s residents, many of whom were Black and Latinx. As our lawsuit sets forth, in enforcing the “crime-free” program, the Sheriff’s Department targeted Black and Latinx individuals and neighborhoods. Indeed, Black renters were almost four times more likely, and Latinx renters 29% more likely, to be evicted under the program than white renters.
Though Hesperia later made participation in the program voluntary, the key features of the program remained.
The program had real and devastating impacts on families across the City of Hesperia.
For example, a Black woman living in Hesperia called the police repeatedly to come to her home because she did not feel safe with her boyfriend. The Sheriff’s Department notified her landlord about the numerous domestic disturbance calls and threatened the landlord with a misdemeanor. The landlord then forced the woman and her children out of their home. With nowhere to go, the family moved into a motel and attempted to rent another home in Hesperia, but the applications were repeatedly denied. Unable to rent another home for her family in Hesperia, she was forced to uproot her life, leave a house full of furniture behind, and move across the country.
Another woman was similarly forced out of her home after she called 911 to get medical assistance for her boyfriend, which landed her on the Sheriff Department’s violators list.
And one family was torn apart after a mother’s call to the police for help got them kicked out of their home and placed on the same violators list, making it impossible to find another rental in Hesperia. The parents moved away and made the impossible decision to leave their teenage daughter behind to finish high school.
These examples are neither isolated nor unique, and they highlight the ways the program harmed families without advancing public safety. As previously noted, the use of such “crime-free” ordinances is not limited to the City of Hesperia. We hope today’s settlement send a strong message to other jurisdictions with “crime-free” programs across the country, letting them know that they will be held accountable if their programs are discriminatory. We encourage municipalities and law enforcement agencies to proactively assess their “crime-free” programs to determine whether they are unlawfully targeting communities of color or otherwise violating federal law. Indeed, in addition to the Fair Housing Act, many of these programs may raise concerns under the recently-amended Violence Against Women Act, which prohibits the eviction of tenants because of their requests for assistance from law enforcement, whether or not the requests are related to domestic violence. Jurisdictions should be embracing diversity, not resorting to racist presumptions, stereotypes, or illegal tactics to drive people out. The Justice Department will continue to fight discriminatory and unlawful “crime-free” ordinances and work to ensure that everyone – regardless of criminal background and life experience – has fair and equal access to housing.
I will now turn it over to U.S. Attorney Estrada.