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 lives."
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, including protests.
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 unconstitutional.
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 Constitution."
The town eventually allowed its shutoff order to expire.
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 cannabis businesses.
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.