A ban on sitting or lying on sidewalks on the November ballot would create one of the strictest laws against loitering in The City despite more than a half dozen existing laws that have tried to curb homelessness and aggressive behavior.
The proposed law gained steam with small business owners complaining about unruly behavior along Haight Street, but has since grown into a citywide debate that pits business interests against civil-rights advocates.
Similar laws have been adopted in cities such as Berkeley and Seattle, and leaders there say the tactic has worked. On Nov. 2, voters will decide whether San Francisco follows their lead.
Proposition L would make it illegal to sit or lie on sidewalks citywide from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Police officers must give a warning before they can give a citation, but for someone who does not comply, police could use jail time as a threat. Many understandable exceptions are built into the law — babies in strollers, people in wheelchairs, parades, waiting in line, food carts.
But civil-rights advocates say there are already enough laws on the books that officers can cite. A breakdown of the laws by the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area found that the half dozen laws already passed have no indication that a complaint is required first.
“The question is, what do you want the law to do?” said Bob Offer-Westort of the Coalition on Homelessness, one of several advocacy groups fighting the law. “If you want to make the sidewalk clear, those laws already exist. And if you want to make the sidewalks safer, then sitting is not the issue.”
Mayor Gavin Newsom, with Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, introduced the sit-lie ordinance in March to the Board of Supervisors. The board rejected the resolution with a veto-proof majority, led by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, whose district includes the Haight.
Newsom proposed the sit-lie ordinance and put the measure on the ballot because the police and community who were trying to address the issue on the sidewalks didn’t feel like they had the tools, said Newsom spokesman Tony Winnicker.
“They’re saying what exists isn’t enough, that they need the tool, and that’s why the mayor put this on the ballot,” Winnicker said.
Police Chief George Gascón, who originally proposed the idea, says it would be a way for officers to use their judgment if an unruly person would not stand up and leave the sidewalk. The sit-lie law would allow officers to force someone to stand up. The Police Department would not comment on this story because of city rules barring the endorsement of ballot measures.
Opponents say it’s an unnecessary law, and that it would result in unfair treatment of the homeless and day laborers, and could even impact children selling lemonade. They say police should enforce existing laws through the use of more foot patrols.
The debate isn’t only dominated by politicians. Haight Street merchant Kent Uyehara was among the first to rally the neighborhood for the new law, which was eventually re-branded as the Civil Sidewalks initiative. Activists have fought the law by putting up lemonade stands on sidewalks.
“The issue is this ever growing presence of aggressive behavior. For various reasons, some of them political, over the last 15 to 20 years it’s been an issue that’s ever present in San Francisco. Over the years it’s become an accepted status quo,” said Uyehara, who owns FTC Skateshop.
There are already at least six San Francisco laws that address unruly behavior generally associated with homelessness, such as aggressive panhandling, stalking and obstructing the sidewalk. But those laws are infractions or mention jail time as a last resort.
Infractions are handled in traffic court and do not result in jail time. Without appearing for a citation, someone may be held overnight on a bench warrant.
“The approach is to get people who are frequently committing these quality of life crimes to get into services and get support for whatever issues they had,” said Ann Donlan, a spokeswoman for the Superior Court.
Just what is the ‘poison pill’?
Proposition M would require the Police Commission to adopt a policy for police foot patrols, but because of the so-called “poison pill” provision, it does so much more.
The proposed ordinance is inextricably linked to Proposition L, which would ban sitting or lying on sidewalks.
If voters adopt both M and L, and if Prop. M receives more votes, Prop. L, the law against people sitting or lying on sidewalks, would not take effect. If the voters adopt both M and L, and if
Prop. L receives more votes, both measures would take effect.
The so-called “poison pill” was put into Prop. M by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu after Mayor Gavin Newsom inserted a poison pill in a separate November initiative that would nullify a hotel tax.
Foot patrols have been a hot topic since 2006, when the Board of Supervisors approved a pilot project to put cops on the beat. Police Chief Heather Fong countered the mandate by deploying her own foot patrols.
The strategy is popular with residents, but it has yet to be institutionalized to the point where police are held accountable,
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi is in support of the proposition. But others see it as a veiled attempt to defeat the sit-lie ordinance.
“If you have a problem with sit-lie, argue the point,” Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier said. “Don’t try and use a political process to kill an initiative you don’t agree with.”
“It’s not a homeless debate as much as it is a human debate. The vast majority of people this would affect aren’t even homeless.” — Mayor Gavin Newsom
“I think there is a real problem, but we already have laws on books that, if properly enforced, can address those problems.” — Supervisor David Campos
Proposition L, on ballot Nov. 2
Would make it illegal to sit or lie on sidewalks citywide from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. It also includes a provision to provide access to social services for those who need it. Police officers must give a warning before they can give a citation, but for someone who does not comply, police can use jail time as a threat. A repeat offense within 24 hours of a citation can get someone a fine of $300-$500 and/or up to 10 days in jail. And a repeat offense within 120 days of a conviction, could lead to a fine of $400-$500, and/or community service, and/or up to 30 days in jail.
Community policing and foot patrols
“When you give a taste of foot patrols to people, and they’ve grown to expect it, they’re not going to stand for taking it away.” — Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi
“It’s not going to solve all of our problems, but right now our small businesses are hurting. What sit-lie does is help businesses flourish.” — Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier
Proposition M, on ballot Nov. 2
Would require the Police Commission to adopt a comprehensive policy on community policing; would require the police chief to adopt a foot beat patrol program in all police stations and provide status reports; and would invalidate Proposition L.
There oughta be a law …
A number of city laws have been passed already to target aggressive public behavior. Among them:
Obstructing any street, sidewalk, passageway or other public way
Municipal Police Code section 22; passed in 1979
– Makes it illegal to purposely obstruct someone’s right of way on the sidewalk or street. Infraction fines range from $50 to $500. Exceptions apply to First Amendment activities, such as political protests when there is no other nearby space out of the way. Sit-lie proponents argue this law cannot be enforced unless someone makes a complaint.
Municipal Police Code section 120-2; passed by voters in 2003
– Ban on aggressive solicitation in all public places, and bans all solicitation on some parts of city sidewalks, including near ATMs, check cashing businesses and freeway on- and off-ramps, as well as certain other public places.
Remaining on private or business property
Municipal Police Code section 25; passed in 1979
– Prohibits anyone from remaining on private property or business premises after they are told by the owner to leave. Such laws are often noticed verbally or by a sign posted in a conspicuous location. The crime is an infraction; fines range between $50-$500. Exceptions exist if asking someone to leave violates their civil rights. Sit-lie proponents say that once again, this law requires a citizen complaint before it can be enforced.
Throwing rubbish on streets
Municipal Police Code section 33; passed in 1939, amended in 1994
– It’s illegal to throw litter on any sidewalk, street, alley, gutterway or other public place in the City and County of San Francisco. Police can use this ordinance to address complaints that people sitting on sidewalks create a messy environment.
Loitering outside nightclubs
Municipal Police Code section 121; passed in 2009
– Prohibits loitering outside a nightclub when an event is in progress. The law is seldom, if ever, enforced.
Aggressive pursuit prohibited
Municipal Police Code section 122; passed in 1990
Urination and defecation
Municipal Police Code section 153; passed in 2002
– It is illegal to relieve oneself on a public sidewalk or street. What may be hard to believe is that it wasn’t illegal until 2002. Supervisors unanimously approved the law despite protests from homeless advocates. The law is an infraction and cannot carry jail time.
Playing ball on public streets
Municipal Police Code section 110; passed in 1938
– It’s illegal to “participate in any game of ball on any public street or highway.”
Source: Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, ballot information packet, Municipal Police Code