Just one week after the Santa Barbara City Council agreed to budget an additional $300,000 a year to beef up law enforcement presence on State Street to keep aggressive panhandlers and unruly street people in check, the council’s Ordinance Committee explored a wide range of proposals designed to curb aggressive panhandlers and give City Hall a new enforcement tool to deal with public urination and defecation.
Leading the charge were councilmembers Frank Hotchkiss and Randy Rowse, who stressed they were targeting offensive behavior with the new ordinances but not any groups in particular. It’s clear, however, the abiding issue for State Street merchants and visitors is what law enforcement refers to as “young urban travelers,” or YUTs. They blow through town in successive waves and, while here, congregate in clusters — with dogs and backpacks in tow — on lower State Street sidewalks and benches.
In contrast to street people a couple of blocks north — who typically have longer tenure in Santa Barbara — the YUTs are more prone to verbal aggression and other forms of pack behavior that make passersby uncomfortable. Among the measures under consideration is a proposal to prohibit groups from “congregating in a manner that blocks the free movement of pedestrian traffic on our downtown sidewalks.” Another would restrict the hours anyone can sit or lie on the sidewalk.
Current law bans sitting and lying between 7 a.m. - 9 p.m. If the new measure is approved, such behavior would be prohibited 7 a.m. - 2 a.m. City Attorney Ariel Calonne cautioned committee members they could be violating the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. That problem might arise, he noted, if there are “insufficient shelter beds” and the city has effectively criminalized “sitting, lying, or sleeping at night while being involuntarily homeless.”
In addition, the committee considered measures that would limit the amount of time any one person could spend on a given downtown bench and tighten laws banning street peddling of any sort. Such changes could effectively call into question the legality of many street musicians, who typically collect money in guitar cases or hats placed on the sidewalk. One change likely to pass is a proposal to expand the space “active” panhandlers have to maintain between themselves and people waiting in line near ATM machines. The current ordinance requires a 25-foot buffer; the new language would expand that to 80 feet.
For the past year, it turns out, Santa Barbara has found itself without an ordinance enabling it to take action against people who urinate and defecate in public. That’s because local courts began interpreting the laws in such a way that breaking them meant filing misdemeanor charges rather than infractions. Because the city attorney lacks legal authority to prosecute anything but infractions, he was forced to ask the District Attorney to file misdemeanors for public elimination. Because those facing such charges are entitled by law to jury trials, the DA has not been inclined to do so. “No one thought it would be a good use of resources to have a jury trial for urinating in public,” Calonne said. In the meantime, city cops have cobbled together a makeshift solution, charging violators under a state law banning littering.
The plethora of new measures designed to discourage obnoxious behavior by street people comes just one week after the City Council voted to spend an additional $150,000 to hire an additional cop. In so doing, the councilmembers made it abundantly clear they expected Police Chief Cam Sanchez to assign this officer to State Street to reassure tourists and residents uncomfortable at the prospect of going downtown. In addition, the council approved spending $150,000 more to pay for private security personnel to patrol State Street, especially the 500, 600, and 700 blocks.
Already city cops have stepped up their presence on those blocks. Between March 10 and April 6, they made 18 felony arrests, 47 misdemeanor arrests, and issued 596 misdemeanor citations. Hotchkiss expressed interest in exploring Santa Maria’s ordinance that bans profane behavior. Calonne suggested that vulgar language alone was insufficient for police intervention, pointing out that the city’s existing ordinance already bans any language that might incite “immediate violent response.”
Calonne warned the committee from taking any action that could be construed as targeting any particular group. Likewise, he cautioned that panhandling is deemed by the courts to be free speech, so any restrictions in the time, manner, or place had to be sufficiently open-ended to allow ample avenues for other options. No advocates for homeless rights spoke or were in attendance. The matter will go back to the Ordinance Committee one more time. After that, it would be referred to the council as a whole for action.