Lawsuit accuses Sacramento utility company of racially profiling Asians in cannabis crackdown

  • Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is facing a lawsuit for allegedly targeting Asian communities when providing customer data to authorities without a warrant.
  • Data privacy watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed the lawsuit on Wednesday on behalf of the nonprofit Asian American Liberation Network and Asian American cannabis industry attorney/SMUD customer Khurshid Khoja.
  • The lawsuit noted that the utility would turn over a list of customers who used over a specified threshold amount of energy per month to the Sacramento Police Department.
  • The list excluded homes in a predominantly white neighborhood, and was further shortened by a police analyst to homes with Asian-sounding names for further investigation. 
  • According to the lawsuit, the bulk disclosure “turns its entire customer base into potential leads for police to chase,” liberally disclosing customers’ Social Security, driver’s license and telephone numbers.

Data privacy watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a lawsuit accusing the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) of racially profiling Asian communities when providing customer data to authorities without a warrant.

The case was filed Wednesday on behalf of the nonprofit Asian American Liberation Network and SMUD customer Khurshid Khoja, an Asian American cannabis industry attorney and cannabis rights advocate from Sacramento.

Law enforcement has long used excessive electricity consumption as a potential clue for cannabis cultivation in what appear to be normal homes. The lawsuit notes that the utility company would turn over a list of customers who crossed a specified threshold amount of energy used per month to the authorities. 

The suit further claims that Asian Americans were deliberately targeted by the data disclosure, resulting in disproportionate penalties incurred by customers of Asian descent in recent years. 

While the SMUD provided entire ZIP codes’ worth of power usage information to the Sacramento Police Department, it allegedly did not include homes in a predominantly white neighborhood. A police analyst then reportedly singled out Asian-sounding names from the list provided for further investigation.

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

In a statement Thursday, SMUD spokesperson Lindsay VanLaningham denied any wrongdoing, claiming that they “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.”

Meanwhile, EFF co-executive director Megan Sapigao pointed out that 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 added.

In 2018, nearly 100 homes in Northern California allegedly purchased with money wired to the United States by a Chinese-based crime organization were seized by federal and state authorities 

In Aug. 2022, at least two lawsuits were filed by Asian American civic groups against California’s Siskiyou County and Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue accusing them of engaging “in a sweeping campaign to harass and intimidate Hmong and other Asian Americans.”

 

Featured Image via CBS Sacramento

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