Los Angeles Will Shut Off People's Utilities For Hosting Parties, Not For
Failing To Pay Their Utility Bills
Mayor Eric Garcetti's plan to shut off utility service to violators of bans
on private gatherings poses grave civil liberties and due process concerns.
CHRISTIAN BRITSCHGI | 8.6.2020 5:50 PM
(Image of Sport/Newscom)
In Los Angeles, you can have your power turned off for having parties at
your house, but not for failing to pay your power bill.
On Wednesday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that he was
authorizing the city-controlled Department of Water and Power (DWP) to shut
off utilities to homes and businesses that host unpermitted gatherings in
violation of county and city stay-at-home orders.
The order comes in response to reports of large parties being held at
residences across Los Angeles, including one on Tuesday night that ended in
the shooting death of one attendee.
"The consequences of these large parties ripple far beyond those parties.
They ripple throughout our community," Garcetti said in a press briefing
Wednesday evening. "While we have already closed nightclubs and bars, these
large parties have become nightclubs in the hills. Beyond the noise,
traffic, and nuisance, these parties are unsafe and can cost Angelenos their
The mayor said that if Los Angeles Police Department officers discover a
property that is hosting a prohibited gathering, they will request that DWP
shut off service to said property within the next 48 hours. The order goes
into effect this Friday.
Los Angeles County's public health order bans family gatherings and parties
of any size. The City of Los Angeles' public health order bans gatherings of
any size outside of residences, save for several listed exemptions,
In his remarks Wednesday evening, Garcetti said that enforcement of this
utility shutoff order would be focused on the most egregious violators.
The state of California has barred investor-owned utilities from shutting
off service to customers for non-payment until April 16 of next year. This
doesn't affect public utilities like DWP, although The Los Angeles Times
reports the department has voluntarily agreed to suspend service shutoffs.
Other communities that have experimented with utility shut-off orders during
COVID-19 have run into opposition on constitutional grounds.
When Salisbury, Massachusetts, issued an order shutting of publicly provided
water to vacation homes in the hopes of preventing out-of-towners from
summering there, thus preventing the spread of COVID-19, the Pacific Legal
Foundation (PLF) sent a letter to the town arguing the policy was
PLF argued that the town's shutoff order violated the U.S. Constitution's
protections of due process and equal protection, given that the order only
applied to people with seasonal homes in town.
"When a property right, such as the right to receive running water in one's
home, is violated, the government needs to follow certain procedures. These
include giving fair notice to the affected parties and then providing a fair
opportunity for those parties to challenge the order before a neutral
judge," wrote PLF attorney Daniel Woislaw in a May blog post. "Thus, when
Salisbury passed a law restricting access to water without providing any
procedures for individualized notice or hearings, it jumped the gun—and the
The town eventually allowed its shutoff order to expire.
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The process outlined by Garcetti doesn't give property owners the
opportunity to challenge having their utility service shutoff. It instead
relies only on police determining someone's guilt before requesting DWP
meter out punishment.
Los Angeles' city-owned utility allows Garcetti to use access to basic
necessities of life as a tool for enforcing government policy. It's not the
first time the city has used utility access as a cudgel. Last year, the city
council voted to give DWP the power to shut off utilities to unlicensed
Garcetti has presented this utility shutoff measure as a way of cracking
down on the most irresponsible violators of the ban on gatherings. Whether
it will be enforced that way remains to be seen.
As the mayor noted in his remarks, closing nightclubs and bars didn't
eliminate people's desire to socialize. The longer shutdown orders remain in
place, the more people will end up violating them by congregating in private
residences. To enforce its policies, the city could end up having to shut
off electricity and water to a lot of homes.
Given the grave civil liberties concerns at stake, controlling electricity
seems like one power the government shouldn't have.
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