Shades of Arizona!...What's Next in San Fernando?

Suspicious and unreasonable searches of residents in San Fernando in reprisal for support of recall elections raises eyebrows

By Alex Garcia, San Fernando Sun
Published on LatinoLA: May 25, 2012

Shades of Arizona!...What's Next in San Fernando?

Originally published in the San Fernando Sun

Several residents in the 900 block of Griswold Street in San Fernando, who were recently hit with code enforcement tickets for a number of violations, suspect this may have been due to their support for the recall effort against the city's mayor and two council members.

"I don't know where these reprisals come from. I don't know if it's because we supported the recall or we signed (a petition) against the water and sewer increases," said Noelia Prado, who faces a $1,100 fine for a converted garage.

Prado said she supports the recall because "the City is not working well" and "because there's a lot of problems we can't resolve."

Since late 2011, when then San Fernando Mayor Mario Hernandez publicly divulged his relationship with Councilmember Maribel De La Torre during a city council meeting and sparked a national media storm, residents have banded together and formed a Recall Committee aimed at getting rid of Hernandez, De La Torre and current Mayor Brenda Esqueda.

They blame all three for a number of actions that have caused strain and financial difficulties in the city for the past couple of years.

Suspicious Enforcement

On Sunday, May 6, several San Fernando Police Department officers arrived in the 900 block of Griswold and approached several homes there.

Martin Herrera was just heading out to get some water when he saw the officers. By the time he got back from the store, the police officers were in his backyard and he got worried.

"I asked them what they were doing and they said 'we have an arrest warrant,'" recalled Herrera, who said an officer showed him a piece of paper. Herrera said he did not know the name of the person the police were supposedly looking for.

The officers asked if they could check the house. But once inside, Herrera said, they stayed in the living room while a city code enforcement inspector inquired as to the number of rooms in the house and other particulars.

Eventually, he got a $110 fine for having an illegal tenant in the house. Herrera admits he rents a room to one of his cousins, but finds it troubling that the police would "lie about looking for someone" to get inside his house.

"I never thought the police would lend themselves to that," said Herrera, who's been living in the house the past three years.

"If they (the police) start lying, they're going to get a bad reputation," Herrera added.

He also objected to the way the officers and inspector went into the house, without any previous notice or without asking permission.

"If they want to come and check my house, that's fine, but they shouldn't do it that way," he said.

Just like his neighbor, Prado, Herrera suspects his fine may be a response for signing the recall petition."I signed the petition. I think these are reprisals," he said.

San Fernando police and the inspector, identified by the residents as Fernando Miranda, used the search warrant approach to get into at least three other homes in the block.

Alicia Gonzalez was given five citations totaling $3,300 for a garage conversion and occupancy, having an illegal tenant, and even a small chicken she had just received as a gift from a relative.

"I want them to take away these tickets because I don't have any of the things they say I do," Gonzalez said, also complaining about the way the city's representatives got into her house.

"They just went inside without permission or anything," she said. Gonzalez added she couldn't pay the tickets because she and her son have been without jobs for the past five months, partly due to medical conditions they both have.

Isabel Rodriguez, another neighbor, faces $2,300 in fines for a garage conversion and occupancy violations, as well as having too many dogs. "They should send letters ahead to let us know they're going to check the house instead of just coming in with the police," said Rodriguez, adding "and what does the police have to do with the code enforcement?"

She said she hasn't complained before city officials because she sees no use in doing so. "Why go if we're not going to win?" she said.

But Prado said she plans to file a Citizens Report because she considers the fine for a garage conversion unfair.

Prado said the officers didn't even open her garage or go inside it. The violation is for a room that she said is part of the home, but sits on top of the garage.

"That's part of the house, not the garage," she said before opening the garage, which she clearly uses for storage, not living quarters. "They never asked me to open the garage."

This is the first time Prado has faced this fine in her eight years of living on the property.

"They manipulate people and used us," said Prado, in reference to the initial approach of the officers claiming they had an arrest warrant.

Recall Reprisals

Members of the Recall Committee showed up at the hastily put together May 11 press conference on Griswold, and expressed dismay at hearing the resident's plight.

"It's sick that the City has been run to the point that the residents are afraid of the government," said committee member Julian Ruelas, who compared the actions to "Communist Russia."

"People getting tickets for things that don't exist, it's absurd," Ruelas said.

Linda Campanella Jauron also voiced her displeasure.

"The City staff is being bullied into writing tickets for things that should be considered positive, like fixing a window," she said, in reference to a ticket issued to Herrera for replacing a window in his house without a permit.

"They're writing tickets to these people for minor things while the City leaves hazards that endanger our children," she added, describing how stakes from a broken street sign have been poking out in a street near Pioneer Park for the past three years. "It's a shame we're no longer welcome in our city. But this can't go on because we're going to win."

So far, the Recall Committee has gathered more than 2,300 signatures before the May 23 deadline. A total of 2,029 valid signatures are needed to require the City to hold a special election where residents can vote whether to retain or remove Hernandez, De La Torre and Esqueda from office.

Police Response

When asked about the citations and the residents' assertions, interim Police Chief Gil Carrillo said he could not comment about the allegations.

"I'm not going to mediate it in the newspaper," Carrillo said, adding that he had not heard complaints from residents. "I'm not aware of any problems. I have no idea of any issues."

He said that Code Enforcement is currently under the police department's purview, although this won't be permanent. "Next month, it goes back to Public Works," he said.
But he added that if any residents have questions about citations issued, he would listen to them.

"They have nothing to fear," Carrillo said. "If they have any complaints, we need to address this issue. They can come and air what their concerns are."

Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said the Fourth Amendment "protects against unreasonable searches," particularly in people's homes.

"The Constitution is clear, police cannot come into somebody's home without permission or a search warrant, except in a chase or when there is an immediate threat to life," Bibring said.

Bibring added, however, that while officers have to obtain permission to enter a home, "they don't have to tell you the truth" about what they're there for. "Nothing prevents them from lying. There is nothing wrong with that," the lawyer said.

He recommended that if a resident doesn't want to let an officer into his home, he could always refuse. "You can simply say 'I can talk to you out from my porch,'" Bibring said.

...and life goes on in San Fernando, California....

Originally published in the San Fernando Sun

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