·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary

Civil Rights

Lawsuit: Sacramento Shared Asian Homeowners’ Info with Local Law Enforcement

— September 23, 2022

The lawsuit alleges that the Sacramento Municipal Utility District shared Hmong homeowners’ power consumption information with a local sheriff’s office.

A recently filed privacy lawsuit alleges that the Sacramento Municipal Utility District searches entire ZIP codes’ worth of data and discloses its finding to local law enforcement.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the S.M.U.D.’s mass disclosures of consumer data “turns its entire customer base into potential leads for police.”

Additionally, the lawsuit—filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as the law firm Vallejo, Antolin, Agarwal, and Kanter LLP—particularly targeted Asian homeowners.

“SMUD’s policies claim that ‘privacy is fundamental’ and that it ‘strictly enforces privacy safeguards,’ but in reality, its standard practice has been to hand over its extensive trove of customer data whenever police request it,” said E.F.F. staff attorney Saira Hussain. “Doing so violates utility customers’ privacy rights under state law and the California Constitution while disproportionately subjecting Asian and Asian American communities to police scrutiny.”

The Associated Press notes that, earlier this year, Asian-Americans filed at least two lawsuits against the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department, alleging that law enforcement targeted the local Hmong community in its efforts to eradicate illegal marijuana cultivation facilities.

Generic sheriff’s badge. Image via Flickr/user:Kim Siever. Public domain.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District purportedly procured, analyzed, and provided the sheriff’s office with consumers’ power consumption metrics.

By looking at power usage trends, police can potentially identify homeowners who are using unusual amounts of electricity—a possible indicator of high-power-consumption agricultural tools.

However, the E.F.F.’s lawsuit claims that the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office routinely removed non-Asian-sounding names from the lists provided by the S.M.U.D., focusing only on homeowners of Asian descent.

A spokesperson for the utility district has released a statement denying any and all wrongdoing.

“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,” S.M.D. spokesperson Lindsay VanLanningham told The Associated Press in an email.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, adds an E.F.F. press release, filed the lawsuit on behalf of Asian-American homeowners and the Asian American Liberation Network.

Megan Sapigao, the co-executive director of the Network, said that power consumption investigations disproportionately harm area landowners of Asian descent.

“SMUD and the Sacramento Police Department’s mass surveillance program is unlawful, advances harmful stereotypes, and overwhelmingly impacts Asian communities,” Sapigao said in a statement re-published on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website. “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.”


Lawsuit: California utility targeted Asians in pot searches

Lawsuit: SMUD and Sacramento Police Violate State Law and Utility Customers’ Privacy by Sharing Data Without a Warrant

Join the conversation!