Calif. County Tries To Toss Federal Suit Alleging Intimidation Of Hmong Voters

October 21, 2016 3:46 p.m.

A rural California county is trying to convince a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed on behalf of Hmong residents who allege local officials waged a voter intimidation campaign to keep them from participating in the California primary.

Attorneys for Siskiyou County officials argue that armed sheriff’s deputies paying house visits to Hmong residents and inquiring about their registration status days before the June 7 primary did not amount to ethnically-motivated voter intimidation. Instead, they say Sheriff Jon Lopey’s team was working to investigate alleged voter fraud and illegal marijuana grow operations in the densely forested rural county.

“Plaintiffs’ attempt to characterize the lawful investigation into voter fraud and enforcement of drug-abatement laws and ordinances as illegal and systematic targeting of Hmong residents based on their race is completely lacking,” the motion to dismiss, filed on October 13, reads.

Dominic Spinelli, a lawyer representing Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey as well as a county clerk and investigator from the secretary of state’s office who were also named as defendants in the suit, said he was “very hesitant” to comment on pending litigation.

Pointing to an upcoming Nov. 1 court hearing, Spinelli told TPM in a Friday phone call that “we’ll see what happens.”

Brian Ford, a lawyer for the 10 Hmong plaintiffs, did not immediately respond Friday to TPM’s request for comment.

The controversy first unspooled this summer, when ACLU California’s voting rights director, Lori Shellenberger, informed the California secretary of state’s and attorney general’s offices that Hmong residents were, as she told TPM at the time, “terrified of going to vote” in the state’s primary.

Bearing service weapons, Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey and his deputies visited the homes of at least 39 Hmong residents to inquire about recently filed voter registration forms that the county clerk flagged for lacking “all of the information required by law.” Lopey told TPM at the time that he believed “some of these Asian Americans were manipulated, perhaps cajoled or coerced into filling out voter registration cards” by “very aggressive” individuals from the San Francisco Bay area.

“A lot of these people haven’t been here for a long time,” he told TPM.

Investigators from the secretary of state and attorney general’s offices were dispatched to look into the voter fraud allegations, but soon became aware of the serious allegations against Lopey’s deputies of voter intimidation. A spokesman for the secretary of state’s office told TPM at the time that the agency’s investigation “evolved” after it learned that “the local sheriff and district attorney instead chose to repeatedly issue statements that were viewed as efforts to intimidate the Hmong community.”

Though investigators from both agencies monitored polling sites on June 7, some of the approximately 1,000 local Hmong residents allegedly felt too threatened to vote. Siskiyou County’s Hmong community is composed largely of political refugees, some of whom live in makeshift shelters on unincorporated parcels of land.

Ten Hmong residents filed suit in September in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, requesting a jury trial and damages for what they alleged was a concerted effort to keep them away from the ballot box.

One plaintiff, Wang Chang, alleged officers pointed an assault rifle at him during a visit to his home; he stated in the suit that, because he doesn’t speak English, he thought that the sheriff’s deputies might be trying to kill him. Another, Joua Chao Moua, stated that he required hospitalization after fainting when he saw uniformed officers trying to enter his home with what he said was an assault rifle.

“Defendants created and continue to maintain a climate of fear, intimidation, and racially motivated disenfranchisement and persecution, under the color of law, against Plaintiffs and other Hmong Siskiyou County residents, such that many did not vote in the June 7, 2016 primary election, and fear voting in the November 8, 2016 general election,” the complaint reads.

According to a statement obtained by the Record Searchlight newspaper, Siskiyou County legal representative Jim Underwood asserted that there is no evidence of voter intimidation because nine of the plaintiffs in the federal suit are registered to vote and seven of them voted in the primary.

Read the suit in full below:

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