L.A.'s Illegal Street Vendors Well-Aware Of The Cop With Many Hats
M.O. stands for mode of operation, an expression often used by police to describe the common profile of a criminal suspect.
Martinez cruises around the streets of Los Angeles in a two-door, cobalt blue Mustang. Sporting a black busboy hat, a pair of biker shades and a dark, trimmed mustache, he could pass as something of a local celebrity.
In some ways, he is.
When he stops at a red light, a disheveled man comes up to the passenger’s side and waves frantically.
“All right, I see you there, buddy,” Martinez mutters under his breath, chuckling. “Move on.”
This is not a rare occurrence, he explains: “I’ve been out here for a long time, so a lot of people know me and my car.”
This is Martinez’s seventh year as an investigator for the Investigation and Enforcement Division of the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services. He is one of the six peace officers in the department’s task force that primarily focuses on the widespread issue of illegal street vending.
“This is all we do every day,” he says. “I roll around like we’re doing today. Every day I make arrests.”
His shifts, which run from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Mondays through Fridays, consist of arresting illegal street vendors throughout Los Angeles. His specialty lies in the sales of counterfeit products, including Coach handbags and cigarettes.
“But I also do illegal street vending,” he adds as he takes a quick sip from a tall can of Monster.
As Martinez drives down Alvarado Street, he observes at least a dozen violations in the span of two minutes.
“You’ll see to your right a whole bunch of violations,” he says, pointing to stores with outdoor displays. “All these are violations blocking the sidewalk here. They’re not supposed to do that. That’s obstruction of public right of way.”
“All the ladies here, all the shopping carts, making sopes, that’s illegal too,” he points out.
Martinez has repeatedly cited many of these vendors. On an average day, he writes two to 10 tickets depending on circumstances, he says. When the arrestee does not have proper identification, has received more than four tickets or is uncooperative, he books them into jail.
Two to 10 tickets every weekday for seven years; you do the math. Understandably, his face is well known among the community of street vendors.
“I try to throw them off by wearing different types of hats,” Martinez says. “I have a whole bunch of different kinds of hats.”
He also goes on his shifts undercover. Like today, he wears plainclothes like a red-checkered flannel and blue jeans.
Just around the corner of McArthur Park, Martinez spots a young man selling peeled fruit on the street. He parks his car in a nearby lot and approaches him.
Speaking in fast Spanish, Martinez puts the vendor’s hands behind his head and searches him for hidden weapons. He then writes him a ticket on a thin, long metal pad. The young man remains aloof – almost like this is a much too regular occurrence.
As it turns out, it is. After all, this is his fourth or fifth ticket from Martinez.
“He’s a nice guy, a 21-year-old kid from Guatemala,” Martinez explains after. “He’s trying to live the dream here in the United States, that’s all. He’s a good case of a good guy just trying to make a buck.”
As usual, Martinez tells the young man he’ll give him about a half hour to get rid of the fruit cart.
But there’s one blaring problem.
“He can’t go no where; I know his story,” Martinez concedes. “He’s one of those guys who’s paying the coyote. He has no car, no means. He got dropped off at six in the morning, and he’ll get picked up at 6 p.m.”
A “coyote” is someone who brings immigrants across the border; depending on how far they’re coming from, such as Guatemala, Central America, South America or Mexico, the amount of money owed runs from $3,000 to $6,000, Martinez explains.
“You would notice that there’s no bathroom, no place to wash his hands, and he’s out there by himself the whole time,” he adds. “During the summer, poor guy gets dropped off and he’s there for 12 hours until they pick him up.”
Unfortunately, when the immigrant is cited with violations, all incurring fees—including ticket fines, which average at $100—come out of his own pocket. If he’s booked, he is the one who has to come up with bail money, and if he can’t, he’s the one who has to face the judge and spend nights in jail.
“The supervisors don’t help him with anything,” Martinez confirms.
Many immigrants of Latin descent enter the street vending business to make income and pay back their coyotes. Most of them, until their first encounter with law enforcement, are not aware that selling on the streets is illegal in the city of Los Angeles, Martinez says.
“It could be misleading especially if you’re coming from another country,” he explains. “You’re not aware of the laws. You don’t know what you can do, and you have friends telling you that this is legal.”
However, Martinez states that the law is the law.
When asked whether the plight of these street vendors whom he tickets every day affects him emotionally, he says his heart has formed callous over the years.
“It’s like, if you keep on using your hands for work, they become calloused,” Martinez says. “It’s the same thing here.”
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