Monday, May 24, 2010

Sit/Lie Ordinance Will Be on Ballot

My moral standing is lying down.
--Nine Inch Nails, "The Only Time"

Today's Chron reports Mayor Newsom's intention to bypass the Board of Supervisors and take the Sit/Lie Ordinance to the voters on the 2010 ballot. We have discussed this ordinance here and there, but now that the decisionmaking has been shifted unto the voters, it is time to talk a little bit about the details.

If San Francisco voters are presented with a sit/lie ordinance in 2010, there are a few parameters that are worth considering:

Are there alternatives? If the San Francisco police can arrest or cite offenders for loitering, aggressive panhandling, assault, and drug offenses, what is the marginal benefit of this ordinance?

Time/space limitations? An ordinance of this sort is more likely to conform to constitutional standards if it doesn't pursue and persecute people whenever and wherever they are. Similar pieces of legislation elsewhere have limited the criminal prohibition to certain hours in the day and certain areas of the city.

Warning? The law is significantly less draconian if it gives people the opportunity to move away. In some municipalities, a warning needs to be given in writing; in others, an oral warning will suffice.

Authorization to arrest? Does violating the law trigger the risk of arrest? If so, voters might be interested in weighing the interest of proportonality.

Sentencing? This goes to the question how comfortable we are with people doing time in jail--overcrowded as it is--for a municipal petty offense. It is rather likely that, in light of jail overcrowding, most of these cases will be dismissed anyway or dealt with through a fine system, in which case the efficacy and deterrence of the new law should be assessed. And if there is a fine, how much should it be, and how will its amount be tailored to the likely offenders?

Alternative shelter and related expenses? Sit/Lie Ordinances in other municipalities have been found unconstitutional by the 9th Circuit when the court found that the folks lying in the street had nowhere else to go. Providing enough shelter, so as to assure the new law's constitutionality, may cause the city to incur additional preparation and expense.

And, finally--impact on budget? Beyond the issue of shelter, voters need to take into account the impact that citations, arrests, and sentencing will have on the city budget. The more severe the implications of ordinance violation are, the more expensive this measure will be. Even if massive case dismissals will thwart the effort (which may very well be the case), it will still eat up valuable prosecutorial time and money.

Props to KCBS, with whom I talked about this topic this afternoon, for prompting the discussion, and to Adam Maldonado for some very useful information.

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