Asian Americans sue Siskiyou County and its sheriff, alleging racial bias

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Four Asian American residents have filed a class-action lawsuit against Siskiyou County and its sheriff, alleging widespread racism in traffic stops, access to water and enforcement of cannabis-related property liens.

In the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Sacramento on Wednesday, the plaintiffs accuse Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue and other county officials of “a sweeping campaign to harass and intimidate Hmong and other Asian Americans.”

They also allege that they have been wrongly blamed for criminal activity involving cannabis cultivation and that officials have made it “difficult or impossible for Asian Americans to live and travel peacefully in Siskiyou County.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys — from the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus and Covington & Burling LLP — analyzed traffic stop data in Siskiyou County and found striking racial disparities.

More than 28% of drivers stopped by Siskiyou County sheriff’s deputies in 2021 were Asian American, when Asians make up about 2% of the county’s adult population, the attorneys found.

Asian American drivers were 25 times more likely than white drivers to be searched during traffic stops, according to their analysis.

In a drought-stricken rural area, an ordinance barring the transportation of more than 100 gallons of water without a permit was applied only on roads surrounding Asian American neighborhoods, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit also alleges that county officials targeted Asian American residents for property liens related to unpaid fines for cannabis cultivation. More than 80% of the liens were issued against Asian American property owners, according to the lawsuit.

A spokesperson for the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing a lack of resources due to the McKinney fire, which has charred more than 50,000 acres and killed at least four people.

The lawsuit is the latest escalation in a longstanding conflict between law enforcement and Asian American residents in a tiny corner of mountainous Northern California.

Last year, sheriff’s deputies fatally shot a Hmong man who was trying to flee the Lava fire.

Deputies alleged that the man, Soobleej Kaub Hawj, pointed a gun at them. The killing ignited protests and drew attention to the allegedly unequal enforcement of the water transportation ordinance.

In recent years, Hmong Americans and other Asian Americans, including those of Cambodian, Chinese and Laotian descent, have moved to Siskiyou County, with many settling in and around the Shasta Vista subdivision.

Mai Nou Vang, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, is of Hmong descent and owns property in the subdivision. She alleges that she has been unfairly stopped and searched by sheriff’s officials while driving in the area and is likely to be targeted again because of her race.

A lien issued by the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors has decreased the value of her land, interfered with her ability to get financing and put her at risk of foreclosure, according to the lawsuit.

“It had to come to this — you have to sue to fight for fair treatment,” said Mary Chang, a Bay Area resident of Chinese Hmong descent who has been following the unrest on social media and participating in demonstrations.

According to the lawsuit, county supervisors and sheriff’s officials treat Asian Americans “as unwelcome compared to their white, longer-established neighbors.”

“Like some of their most vocal constituents, they view Asian Americans as a monolithic group of which every single person is part of a violent drug cartel and blame the county’s widespread cannabis cultivation on Asian Americans in explicitly racialized terms” — though weed has been farmed in the region for decades, the lawsuit alleges.

LaRue, the sheriff, has said of Asian Americans in the county, according to the lawsuit: “I just wish they’d contribute better … It’s like a third world country out there and that cannot be okay. Forget about cannabis, it’s just about quality of life and how people are living out there.”

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