Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Let's Criminalize Something: The Quality of Life Edition

This week's posts seem like an endless stream of complaints about various futile criminalization efforts. Today's contribution has to do with the recently proposed San Francisco "sit-lie" ordinance. Proposed by Mayor Newsom after a stroll with his baby on Haight, the ordinance would forbid sitting or lying on public sidewalks within the city of San Francisco.

The public discourse about this has centered on the question of criminalization of the poor. Beyond that question, which obviously has to do with the ideological divides in the city, I would like to bring once more, with your permission, gentle reader, the question of enforceability and benefit.

As characterized by Nevius (critiquing Jeff Adachi), the proposal "would restrict sitting or lying on public sidewalks anywhere in the city between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. First-time violators would be warned to move, then could receive a citation with a $50 to $100 fine. The second violation could result in 10 days in jail or a fine of $300 to $500, and each violation after that would be subject to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail." Since the targeted offenders would, for the most part, be unable to pay the fine, they'd be shunted to court, where the case would be closed or diverted to the Community Justice Center or to the Mental Health Court, where the same population could end up anyway, for the exact same reasons, if prosecuted for one of the following violations of the already existing San Francisco Police Code, Article 2:

120-2: Aggressive Solicitation
122: Aggressive Pursuit
124.2: Loitering

Why do we need yet another low-level municipal law for people who are easy to tangle in the law enforcement web anyway, if we really want to entangle then in it? Could this be yet *another* politically-motivated symbolic piece of useless legislation? I leave that to you, gentle reader.

Oh, and if anyone feels that this piece of legislation might be a waste of precious policymaking time, it appears you'll have a chance to speak up today at the police commission meeting.

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Props to Michael Mutalipassi for digging out the police code provisions.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...so if you pass out drunk after 11 a.m. and rest until 6:59, it's ok? Convenient that those aren't shopping hours for the stroller-set.

PVChesney said...

I'm not in favor of this ordinance, but if the city actually enforced it as they claimed (i.e., against the aggressive panhandlers on Haight) then I don't think that there would be a problem with offenders being unable to pay their fines. Most of the aggressive Haight "homeless" are fairly young, and the general impression I get is that they're a bunch of rich/middle class kids who think it's "cool" to run away for a couple of weeks and be asshole gutter punks on Haight. If they were hauled into court, rest assured that Mommy or Daddy would drive down from Sausalito to pick them up and pay their fines. Actually, that being the case, this could wind up being a good revenue tool for our cash-strapped city... hmm?

Hadar Aviram said...

If enforcement is necessary, the city can enforce its laws today with the same outcome. Aggressive solicitation is already a criminal offense carrying a similar sanction in San Francisco. This additional piece of legislation does not bolster the city's arsenal with new ammunition. Rather, it's one more example of symbolic legislation.

Steve said...

My concern with this legislation is it's a broad statute crafted to resolve a more narrow problem which as you've stated is in many instances already illegal. People don't have a problem with sitting or lying down on a street, they have a problem with using drugs on the street. The risk of such a law being used as a tool to combat public drug use is selective enforcement because the police will not cite every person who violates the ordinance, only those whom they (or concerned citizens) consider an annoyance.

My more general reaction is that we can't solve EVERY problem and control EVERY undesirable behavior by making it illegal. Liberty means in some instances people having the right to do things which are nonetheless annoying or uncomfortable. That's the price of a free society, and a reality in a community which has a long list of underlying social problems which go to the heart of this issue.