activist defense

on the intersection of activism and legal systems

Tag: sit/lie laws

committee that backed sit/lie ordinance in berkeley violated local election laws

A sit/lie law on the ballot in Berkeley last year would have made it a crime to sit on sidewalks in the city’s commercial districts between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. The proposal, which involved citations and a possible maximum sentence of six months in jail, was ultimately defeated in November 2012. Yesterday the East Bay Express reported that the Yes on Measure S committee backing the ordinance violated local election laws:

The campaign violations also have stirred controversy in Berkeley because some of the payments handed out on Election Day allegedly went to homeless people who were paid to distribute fliers in favor of an ordinance that would have made it illegal to sit on city sidewalks. Opponents of Measure S say that homeless workers were duped into thinking that they were campaigning for President Obama’s reelection.

Berkeley’s ethics commission plans to fine the Yes on Measure S committee for failing to report more than 50 cash payments to people to hand out fliers on Election Day. The man who made the payments, a member of the Berkeley Democratic Club (which endorsed the proposed ordinance), said he paid cash because he thought many of the people did not have bank accounts.

The proposed sit/lie law also would have criminalized activists for sitting on commercial district sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. during, for example, unpermitted demonstrations or encampments. Similar laws exist in approximately three dozen cities across the U.S.

political repression does not wax and wane with the passage and repeal of individual laws that criminalize activists: a case study

On Thursday, the Berkeley Daily Planet published activist Carol Denney’s account of receiving a ticket last year for demonstrating against a proposed sit/lie law, which was ultimately defeated in November. On November 4, two days before the election, Denney sat on a chair on the sidewalk and played the fiddle with other musicians. According to her article,

We were trying to illustrate that simply sitting on a chair playing music, perfectly legal behavior under the law, would become a crime in two days if Measure S were to pass. … I had checked the law, checked with attorneys, planned every aspect of the demonstration so that no one and no one’s instruments would be jeopardized.

Yet a police officer gave Denney a ticket for obstructing the sidewalk. Two attorneys had tried to explain to the officer that she was misapplying the law, but her supervisor arrived and argued with them. The prosecutor ended up dropping the case after a couple of court dates. Denney concludes that the officers either don’t understand the law or are indifferent to it:

People can’t be accused of blocking a sidewalk for just being there, or for having a backpack or other personal items beside them, the law makes clear. But the police either don’t realize that or realize it and don’t care what the law actually says or what it was intended to do.

Every law that criminalizes activists is another tool officers can use in their attempts to disrupt demonstrations, so it was a victory that the proposed sit/lie law was defeated in November. But political repression does not wax and wane with the passage and repeal of individual laws that criminalize activists. This is because there are countless laws available for police to use against activists, such as other laws criminalizing homeless people that lend themselves to selective enforcement.

lawsuit seeks to stop warrantless searches of arrestees’ cell phones

On January 27, 2012, Bob Offer-Westort pitched a tent in Jane Warner Plaza in San Francisco, put a sleeping bag inside, and sat at the entrance until two police officers asked him to leave. He refused and was arrested. The arrest was a means to an end, effectively showing that a proposed ordinance targeting homeless people was duplicative of existing law.

One of the officers who arrested Offer-Westort searched his cell phone without a warrant, reading his text messages. The police didn’t return Offer-Westort’s phone for three or four months, during which time he went without a phone. (Thankfully he had it back in time to participate in the successful campaign against the proposed sit/lie law in Berkeley.)

In People v. Diaz (2011), the California Supreme Court decided that a warrantless search of an arrestee’s cell phone did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The California Constitution, however, provides greater privacy protections than the U.S. Constitution; so this week, Offer-Westort and the ACLU sued San Francisco to stop warrantless searches of arrestees’ cell phones.

campaign against proposed sit/lie law in berkeley succeeds

Berkeley voters decided last week not to make it a crime to sit on sidewalks in the city’s commercial districts between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. The proposal involved citations and a possible maximum sentence of six months in jail. According to one of the measure’s supporters, who spoke on public radio in October, “When I was on Shattuck yesterday, I had to step over a homeless person to get into a gelato store I wanted to go into.”

Wow. That’s cold-hearted.

The ordinance would also have criminalized activists for sitting on commercial district sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. during, for example, unpermitted demonstrations or encampments.

activists gear up for campaign against proposed sit/lie law in berkeley, california

In the election roughly two months from now, Berkeley voters will decide whether to make it a crime to sit on sidewalks in the city’s commercial districts between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. If voters approve the law, it will go into effect on July 1, 2013. Similar laws already exist in approximately three dozen cities across the U.S.

As homeless people generally cannot pay fines, sit/lie laws put them at risk of facing bench warrants. After judges issue bench warrants, people can be incarcerated if they are detained or arrested (e.g., during a sweep), which disrupts any employment and separates them from their belongings – medications, sleeping bags, work tools, or personal keepsakes. Even if they manage to avoid being detained or arrested after a bench warrant issues, the outstanding warrant can block access to public housing.

The ordinance, Measure S, would also criminalize activists who sit or lie on sidewalks in commercial districts, between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., during unpermitted political demonstrations or encampments.

If you can afford to donate to the campaign, please visit the Berkeley Stand Up for the Right to Sit Down Coalition website. If not, please tell your friends about this grassroots effort.