Law students champion cause of taco truck vendors

Angélica Ochoa found more than a good fight when she and a fellow UCLA law student decided to lock horns with the City of Los Angeles over an issue that threatened the livelihood of hundreds of taco truck vendors who sell food all over the city.

She found her calling: a strong commitment to fight for justice, possibly as a public defender.

"I always wanted to come to law school to empower myself to work with the community. This case gave us both that opportunity," said Ochoa, who, like her partner in this class project, Sarah Day, graduated from law school just a month ago. Ochoa and Day are now studying for the California Bar. "I never dreamed I could actually do something that would make a real difference before graduating from law school."
Sarah Day, from the left, and Angelica Ochoa scored their first legal victory when they represented Francisco Gonzalez and challenged a city ordinance that was making it difficult for taco truck vendors, like Gonzalez, to do business. The women and their classmates at the UCLA School of Law took on the cause as part of a class project.

Ochoa, Day and their client, Francisco Gonzalez, a taco truck vendor for more than a dozen years, became the winners of a "David vs. Goliath" legal battle with the city after they decided to challenge a city ordinance that was making it difficult for taco truck vendors to make a living.

"It was such an amazing learning experience," Ochoa said. "It gave me a chance to develop skills that I can use in the future."

Approved by the City Council in 2006, the city ordinance in question required catering trucks to move every 30 to 60 minutes to another location, depending on whether they were parked in a neighborhood or commercial area.

Gonzalez, who would sometimes get ticketed twice a day, had accumulated more than $1,000 in citations, said Ochoa. "Mr. Gonzalez represents the American dream," she said. "He started with a small, pre-owned truck. With hard work and dedication, he now operates a brand new state-of-the-art truck."

The case came to the law students' attention when they enrolled in a new Criminal Defense course that was offered for the first time in January as part of the law school's Clinical Program. Law school Lecturer Ingrid Eagly, who taught the course, had been approached in the fall by some community groups asking for help, including the Asociación de Loncheros, a group in support of the taco truck vendors.

The course, which examines the role of the defense lawyer, enables students to work on live client cases with help from local defender organizations and volunteer attorneys. On the first day of class, Eagly talked to eight students about the possibility of working on different cases.

"When Professor Eagly told us about this case, I was immediately drawn to it," said Day. "These trucks were something I basically grew up with in Monterey Park. … This was something that was very personal and meant a lot to me." Ochoa, who is from East Los Angeles, said she felt the same way. "The loncheros are a big part of our community."

All eight students in the class did the difficult work of researching the case, writing briefs and filing the challenges, Eagly said. The students attended many association meetings and worked closely with truck operators as well as volunteer attorneys. Over spring break, Ochoa and Day appeared before an administrative hearing examiner for the city's Department of Transportation and challenged the validity of the ordinance, arguing that, since it is not related to public safety or public health, it was preempted by state law, the California Vehicle Code.

When the examiner said that he had no authority to rule on constitutional or preemptive grounds, the case was then appealed to the Superior Court and heard last month by Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Barry D. Kohn, who agreed the ordinance had no relationship to public safety.

"Local authorities may regulate vehicles for public safety reasons," Ochoa explained. "The way this ordinance was structured did not promote public safety. Having the vendor move every 30 to 60 minutes caused more traffic congestion. There was also a health risk because cooked food has to be kept at a certain temperature. Forcing the trucks, which carried hot oil, to move frequently wasn't safe for either the vendor or the public.

"It doesn't make any sense," said Alfredo Magallanes, spokesman for the asociación. "We are working legally with our business and health department licenses, and all our permits that have to be updated."

No one from the city appeared at court proceedings to argue on behalf of the ordinance.

Since the judge's ruling, enforcement of the ordinance has been suspended for an indefinite time, officials with the city's transportation department said. Gonzalez's tickets were voided, and the fines he paid and court fees were refunded, Ochoa said.

"We feel very, very grateful for knowing these students. They helped us a lot by doing this," Magallanes said. "We feel very proud of what they did. It was such a big step for us."

Said Eagly, "I was very confident that they had a strong legal argument, but it was great to see them do it all on their own. … This was a very important issue to them (the vendors). They put a lot of trust in the clinical program and the students."