CA utility deliberately targeted Asians when searching for marijuana grow houses, lawsuit claims
Extraordinary use of electricity has long been a telltale sign of illegal grow houses producing thousands of marijuana plants hidden in seemingly ordinary homes.
The data disclosure deliberately targeted Asian Americans, with resulting disproportionate penalties against those of Asian descent, the suit says.
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
Southern California Edison's policy generally requires a warrant or subpoena to share information with law enforcement.
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.
Sacramento officials estimated in 2017 that there might be as many as 1,000 illegal grow houses in California’s capital city.
The privacy violation is more acute with the proliferation of "smart" meters that send power usage information to the utility several times a day.