By Baylon Ferry, AsAmNews Intern
A Vietnamese American man in Sacramento, California charged in a new lawsuit that the city has violated his privacy and targeted him because he’s Asian American.
On Thursday, Nov. 3, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) added Alfonso Nguyen to a lawsuit originally filed September 21.
“For me and my family, who escaped Vietnam’s communist government and trying to come to this country and settle here, we believe in freedom. To have this happen is like a flashback to what we faced – life and death – when we escaped Vietnam,” Nguyen said to AsAmNews.
The suit alleges that SMUD and the Sacramento County Police Department worked hand-in-hand in violation of state law and customer privacy by sharing consumer data with the police without search warrants.
According to Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney and assistant director at EFF, SMUD collects smart meter data from people across the region, which can expose consumer habits and other private information. He added that instead of using the data collected to provide better services to customers, SMUD gives private data to the police.
“The utility district is taking that data and giving it to the police and working closely with the police in order to identify houses that supposedly are growing large amounts of cannabis,” Schwartz said.
According to the lawsuit, these actions taken by SMUD and the police turn the entire community into suspects and unfairly targets the Asian American residents of the region.
Schwartz said that in selecting zip codes out of the entire city, SMUD chooses to look and inspect “zip codes where there are concentrations of Asian people, as opposed to White people.” He adds that when a list of names is generated in a zip code that uses above a certain amount of electricity, a spotlight is put on people who have Asian-sounding names.
“There is a text message between a utility district analyst and a police officer that points out that a particular name on the list is Asian,” Schwartz said.
Furthermore, Schwartz points to data EFF has collected showing that “85% of people who are fined for growing cannabis in their homes, in excess of the six plants that are allowed by city ordinance, are people of Asian descent by looking at their names,” he said.
In a press release by EFF, Megan Sapigao, co-executive director of the Asian American Liberation Network said that “SMUD and the Sacramento Police Department’s mass surveillance program is unlawful, advances harmful stereotypes, and overwhelmingly impacts Asian communities.”
On behalf of Nguyen, the Asian American Liberation Network, and another SMUD customer, Khurshid Khoja, EFF’s lawsuit consists of two major allegations.
“What SMUD is doing violates a California statute, which says the energy companies cannot disclose consumer electric usage data, except in narrow exceptions that don’t apply here,” Schwartz said.
The California legislature enacted this statute, which was signed into law by the California governor to protect consumers’ privacy regarding electricity and other utilities.
The lawsuit also alleges that the police and SMUD’s actions violate the state constitution’s guarantee of freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.
“This is our state constitution version of our federal Fourth Amendment right. The collection of smart meter data is a search of a home because it is so precise and reveals so much about what people can do in their homes,” Schwartz said.
“Therefore, the power company cannot disclose the user information to the police, again, without a warrant or some kind of probable cause or reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed,” he added.
In an email response to AsAmNews, SMUD spokesperson Lindsay VanLaningham declined to comment on pending litigations but denied any wrongdoing on SMUD’s behalf.
“We agree that our customer usage data should be (and is) treated with care. However, the California Public Records Act permits and sometimes requires the sharing of such information with local 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 enforcement’s request to assist them with their investigations,” VanLaningham said.
AsAmNews contacted the Sacramento Police Department for comment but has not received a response as of this writing.
According to a plaintiff’s statement in the case, Nguyen, an adjunct counselor and professor at Cosumnes River College, wrote that he joined the lawsuit because SMUD had given his electricity data usage to the police without his knowledge or consent. Nguyen has been a SMUD customer and homeowner in Sacramento County since 2001.
“I’ve joined a lawsuit against SMUD because they have given my electricity usage data to the police. This violates my right to privacy. Twice, police have come to my home and demanded to search it for no reason,” Nguyen wrote in his statement.
Nguyen recounts the first time two deputy sheriff’s entered his property and demanded to search it without a warrant. He said the police officers showed up at his home, which he shares with his mother, at 9 p.m.
“The two police officers showed up and demanded to search my house. I asked them for the reason why, they said ‘someone here called 911,” Nguyen said. After asking his mother if she had called the police, Nguyen concluded that there had been a mistake.
“One of them, after a few exchanges with me, realized that they got the wrong people. So he actually turned around and walked back out to his car,” Nguyen said.
He recalled that the police officer told the other, “let’s go” – indicating they should leave because they had made a mistake.
“But this other one was so adamant. He wants to search my house, so he pushed my door open with me in a wheelchair,” Nguyen said.
“The wheelchair and me altogether is like 700 pounds, but he pushed me out of the way. He got access to my house, run around my house and check and then walked out,” Nguyen added.
The second incident happened in 2020. Nguyen had been working from home because of the pandemic when two different sheriff’s deputies showed up at his property again.
“I had to excuse myself from my students to go outside to speak with the police. When I started talking and asking them what are the reasons that they want to speak with me, one of them saw me, and I think he realized that this is a mistake,” Nguyen said.
“So he walked back in his car and sat in it, whereas the other one continued to harass us, saying that they got the report from SMUD that indicate that we use a lot of electricity,” he added.
In his statement in the lawsuit, Nguyen said:
“They accused me of growing marijuana. But I’ve never done that, and neither has anybody else in my home or my property. I told them to get a warrant. One deputy put his hand over his holstered gun, as if preparing to draw it. He yelled at me, called me a liar, and threatened to arrest me.”
NBC Bay Area reports that since 2017, Sacramento police have issued penalties to property owners where cannabis is found in violation of established limits. The program generated nearly $100 million in fines in just two years.
Nguyen said that after the second incident, he called SMUD to inquire whether they had given his consumer information to the police. He said that during that conversation, SMUD denied those accusations.
“When I called them, they denied that. Two days later, someone from SMUD called me and acknowledged that they actually sent our electric usage to the Sheriff’s Department,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen and his family immigrated from Vietnam to escape its government and live a better life in the United States.
He added that he felt awful when the police accused him of growing marijuana in his home. “It’s extremely disgusting and upsetting because we do not do that. It’s not in my family, culture, or custom to do those kinds of stuff,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen said that the police’s actions may have been justifiable if he had a criminal past. However, he does not, so he feels extremely violated by their actions. “If they look at my history, it’s clean as a white sheet of paper. I don’t have anything on there,” he said.
“For someone with a significant disability, who fought back and went back to school to get an education. Then go to work to do my duty as a citizen, be productive and pay taxes and everything, to have them do that to me is very upsetting,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen said he did everything he was supposed to do as a good citizen, such as community work, charity functions, etc. But he never once thought he would face this type of discrimination in the United States.
“It’s hard because I did everything I was supposed to do, yet they still come back and haunt me. That’s the aspect that I’m so frustrated with because I thought that once I left Vietnam, none of these things will ever happen to me again,” Nguyen said.
As of writing, EFF’s lawsuit against SMUD, its CEO, the city of Sacramento, and its police chief is still underway. On Sept. 21, the original complaint was filed to the California Superior Court in Sacramento County.
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