Lawsuit: California utility targeted Asians in pot searches

Sep 22, 2022, 2:47 AM | Updated: 6:04 pm
FILE - In this photo released by the Riverside County Sheriff's Office are some of about 700 mariju...

FILE - In this photo released by the Riverside County Sheriff's Office are some of about 700 marijuana plants found in an illegal grow in a home near Temecula, Calif., on Aug. 28, 2019. A data privacy watchdog's lawsuit says a Northern California utility routinely fed customers' power use information to police so they could target illicit marijuana grows, without requiring a warrant or suspicion of wrongdoing. (Riverside County Sheriff's Office via AP)

(Riverside County Sheriff's Office via AP)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Extraordinary use of electricity has long been a telltale sign of illegal grow houses producing thousands of marijuana plants hidden in seemingly ordinary homes.

But a lawsuit filed by a data privacy watchdog says a Northern California utility went too far by racially profiling Asian communities as it routinely fed customers’ power use information to police without requiring a warrant or any suspicion of wrongdoing, in violation of state laws.

The data disclosure deliberately targeted Asian Americans, with resulting disproportionate penalties against those of Asian descent, the suit says.

The suit illustrates a flashpoint in law enforcement’s efforts to combat illicit drugs.

In 2018, federal and state law enforcement agents seized about 100 Northern California houses that they alleged were bought with money wired to the United States by a Chinese-based crime organization, one of many such actions against alleged perpetrators of Asian descent.

Earlier this year Asian Americans filed at least two lawsuits against Siskiyou County’s sheriff alleging racial bias particularly against the Hmong community in his department’s effort to combat widespread illegal marijuana cultivation.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District scoured entire ZIP codes worth of power usage information for the Sacramento Police Department but left out homes in a predominantly white neighborhood, says the lawsuit. And a police analyst removed non-Asian names from a list provided by the utility, forwarding only Asian-sounding names for more investigation, the suit claims.

The utility would turn over a list of customers who used more than a certain threshold amount of energy in a month, the lawsuit alleges. For instance, while a typical household might use less than 1,500 kilowatt hours of electricity in a month, the suit says the utility would disclose homes using more than 3,000 kWhs.

The bulk disclosure “turns its entire customer base into potential leads for police to chase,” the lawsuit says. It says the utility “liberally discloses” customers’ Social Security, driver’s license and telephone numbers.

SMUD and Sacramento police said they couldn’t comment on pending litigation, but SMUD spokeswoman Lindsay VanLaningham denied any wrongdoing.

“We agree that our customer usage data should be (and is) treated with care,” she said Thursday, but she said state law allows and sometimes requires sharing the information with law enforcement agencies.

“We share the information on specific properties to stop what we’ve identified and believe to be power theft and when we are required to do so per local law enforcements’ request to assist them with their investigations,” she said in an email.

“We look forward to being available for questions once legal proceedings have concluded,” Sacramento police Sgt. Zach Eaton said.

The suit was filed Wednesday by the watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation on behalf of the nonprofit Asian American Liberation Network and SMUD customer Khurshid Khoja, who is described as being an Asian American Sacramento resident, cannabis industry attorney and cannabis rights advocate.

Megan Sapigao, co-executive director of the network, said the “mass surveillance program is unlawful, advances harmful stereotypes, and overwhelmingly impacts Asian communities.

“It’s unacceptable that two public agencies would carelessly flout state law and utility customers’ privacy rights, and even more unacceptable that they targeted a specific community in doing so,” she said in a statement.

EFF Senior Staff Attorney Aaron Mackey said the foundation isn’t aware of any other California public utilities that are sharing data in the same way as SMUD.

Private utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric are barred from disclosing customer utility data to law enforcement without a court order under state law and California Public Utility Commission rules, he said.

Public utilities like SMUD aren’t regulated by the commission, but state law bars them “from disclosing entire neighborhoods’ worth of data to law enforcement absent a court order or ongoing investigation,” Mackey said.

SMUD is the nation’s sixth-largest community-owned electric service provider, serving more than 600,000 customers, the suit says.

Southern California Edison’s policy generally requires a warrant or subpoena to share information with law enforcement. The other two major private utilities did not immediately respond to queries from The Associated Press about whether they have similar information-sharing programs, nor did the California Public Utilities Commission comment.

The lawsuit comes as officials are struggling to curtail illegal cannabis grows that are stunting the growth of the legal, licensed recreational marijuana production that California voters approved in 2016.

Disguising illegal cannabis farms in ordinary appearing homes became prevalent nearly two decades ago as authorities disrupted outdoor plots they could spot from helicopters and other surveillance flights.

Law enforcement authorities often discovered the illegal grow houses because of their extraordinary use of electricity to run high-intensity lights, ventilation fans and other devices to grow thousands of marijuana plants, often enabling several harvests each year.

Sometimes the tipoff came when the houses caught fire due to illegal electrical hookups.

Sacramento officials estimated in 2017 that there might be as many as 1,000 illegal grow houses in California’s capital city.

The foundation said the crackdown “has been highly lucrative” for Sacramento, since a city ordinance in 2017 allowed police to levy large penalties on the owners of properties where marijuana was found.

The city issued nearly $100 million in fines in just two years, the foundation said, about 86% of them on people of Asian descent.

The privacy violation is more acute with the proliferation of “smart” meters that send power usage information to the utility several times a day. That information, collected in increments of 15 minutes or less, can provide “a detailed picture of what occurs within a home,” the foundation said. “It can provide inferences about private daily routines such as what devices are being used, when they are in use, and how this changes over time.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

FILE - Gov. Phil Bryant speaks about his legacy following a life of public service, Jan. 8, 2020, i...
Associated Press

Texts: Favre also sought welfare money for football facility

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — After Mississippi spent millions of dollars in welfare money on Brett Favre’s pet project, a university volleyball arena, the retired NFL quarterback tried two years later to get additional cash from the state’s welfare agency for another sports facility, new court documents show. The governor at the time, Republican Phil Bryant, […]
18 hours ago
Associated Press

Police: Man arrested in California plotted mass shooting

CHICO, Calif. (AP) — A 37-year-old man was arrested Sunday in Northern California on suspicion of threatening to kill police officers and planning a “Las Vegas-style” mass shooting, authorities said. The suspect was taken into custody by SWAT officers at a Super 8 motel in Chico after detectives obtained evidence of his plot, according to […]
18 hours ago
A sedan is wedged between a small, black pickup truck and the Bagel Time Cafe in Wildwood, N.J., ea...
Associated Press

Official: 2 killed amid crashes during pop-up NJ car rally

WILDWOOD, N.J. (AP) — A pop-up car rally over the weekend in southern New Jersey led to multiple crashes and the deaths of at least two people riding in a golf cart, officials say. Wildwood Mayor Pete Byron told NJ Advance Media on Sunday that there were a series of car crashes related to the […]
18 hours ago
Associated Press

Little evidence of political argument before teen’s death

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — There is little indication that an 18-year-old who died after being struck by an SUV in North Dakota was a political extremist like the driver claimed. Investigators say none of the witnesses they have interviewed support the idea that there was a political argument before authorities say Shannon Brandt struck Cayler […]
18 hours ago
Demonstrators hold placards outside the Iranian Embassy in London, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. They wer...
Associated Press

Unrest erupts near Iranian embassy in London over death

LONDON (AP) — Violent street protests erupted outside the Iranian embassy in London on Sunday, with rocks thrown at police and five protesters arrested. Large crowds have been gathering all week outside the Knightsbridge compound in protest against the death in Iranian police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Iran. She had been arrested by […]
2 days ago
Cuba's President Miguel Diaz Canel walks with his wife Lis Cuesta Peraza before casting his vote at...
Associated Press

Cuba holds unusual vote on law allowing same-sex marriage

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba held a rare referendum Sunday on an unusually contentious law — a government-backed “family law” code that would allow same-sex couples to marry and adopt, as well as outlining the rights of children and grandparents. Cuba holds parliamentary elections every two years, though no party other than the Communist is allowed, […]
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.
...

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!
...

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]
Lawsuit: California utility targeted Asians in pot searches