Force­ful de­fense for street ven­dor

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Emily Alpert Reyes

Time af­ter time, the po­lice of­fi­cer wheeled up on his bi­cy­cle and handed Rosa Calderon a ticket.

And time af­ter time, the 79-year-old woman came back, rolling her lit­tle cart be­hind her.

Calderon hawks bot­tles of wa­ter and so­das, some­times bat­ter­ies and filmy Christ­mas or­na­ments, be­tween 5th and 6th streets down­town. In roughly a month and a half, she had racked up seven tick­ets for flout­ing Mu­nic­i­pal Code Sec­tion 42.00(b) — the ban on sell­ing goods on city side­walks.

Each of them could mean hun­dreds of dol­lars in fines, plus a heap of court fees, for a woman who es­ti­mated she earned about $15 a day.

“I’ve been sell­ing here for nine years,” the Sal­vado­ran im­mi­grant said in Span­ish one af­ter­noon on Los An­ge­les Street, her hair snowy white around the tem­ples, a freshly is­sued ticket folded in her hand.

She said that years ear­lier, “the street was full of ven­dors, and they said noth­ing.”

The tick­ets had landed her in the Metropoli­tan Court­house on a gray Fri­day morn­ing ear­lier in the year. Be­fore Calderon walked into the court­room, she asked God to help her. But she brought a legal team for backup — in­clud­ing a civil rights at­tor­ney, a crew of earnest law stu­dents and their pro­fes­sor, all clad in con­ser­va­tive suits, ready to pitch ev­ery legal ar­gu­ment they could at this seem­ingly rou­tine case.

The UCLA law stu­dents, who had been cer­ti­fied to rep­re­sent Calderon un­der the su­per­vi­sion of their pro­fes­sor, In­grid V. Eagly, were con­fer­ring in hushed tones in the back of the court­room as they waited for the judge.

Calderon curled and un­curled her fin­gers, glanc­ing around to see whether the po­lice of­fi­cer she knew so well had ar­rived. The last time she had to pay a ticket, Calderon said, there was lit­tle money left to eat or pay rent. She shares an apart­ment in South Los An­ge­les with friend and room­mate Bertha Arce, a fel­low street ven­dor who ac­com­pa­nied her to court.

“What kind of work can a woman of 80 years do?” Arce said later, push­ing her own cart full of ice creams down Los An­ge­les Street. “Noth­ing.”

The tick­ets amount to an oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ard for the throngs of side­walk sell­ers who shill fresh or­ange juice, hot dogs wrapped in ba­con, used cloth­ing, toys and a laun­dry list of other goods in bustling stretches of down­town and MacArthur Park. The po­lice come. The sell­ers scat­ter. Those un­able to es­cape get ci­ta­tions.

But, like Calderon, many sim­ply come back.

“It’s such a waste of time,” said at­tor­ney Cyn­thia An­der­son-Barker, who runs a Na­tional Lawyers Guild legal clinic and helped rep­re­sent Calderon on the case. Dur­ing court hear­ings, “th­ese of­fi­cers are tak­ing time off their work day. They’re spend­ing hours — if they’re do­ing it right — doc­u­ment­ing the things they’re con­fis­cat­ing.”

Far eas­ier, An­der­son-Barker ar­gued, to sim­ply le­gal­ize street vend­ing.

She called the legal battle for Calderon a kind of “push­back” to show that prop­erly en­forc­ing the law is so oner­ous that po­lice should sup­port le­gal­iza­tion. She’s got­ten help from Eagly, the UCLA pro­fes­sor, who has en­listed stu­dents to rep­re­sent de­fen­dants as part of a hands-on course in crim­i­nal de­fense.

Sev­eral Los An­ge­les law­mak­ers rep­re­sent­ing poorer stretches of the city ar­gue that the throngs of ven­dors should be reg­u­lated as busi­ness op­er­a­tors, not cited as crim­i­nals. Other cities, in­clud­ing New York, Chicago and Philadel­phia, of­fer street ven­dors an op­por­tu­nity to be li­censed and op­er­ate legally, ac­cord­ing to a city re­view last year. But the idea has alarmed some busi­nesses and neigh­bor­hood groups that fear le­gal­iza­tion would worsen trash, clog side­walks and put brick-and­mor­tar busi­nesses at a dis­ad­van­tage.

Many have ques­tioned how a city that strug­gles to keep its streets cleaned, its trees trimmed and its side­walks smooth can pos­si­bly ex­pect to en­force any new rules gov­ern­ing where or how street ven­dors can op­er­ate, such as lim­it­ing the hours they do busi­ness or re­quir­ing them to get county public health per­mits if they sell food.

“You can cre­ate all the reg­u­la­tions you want,” said Kent Smith, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the L.A. Fash­ion Dis­trict Busi­ness Im­prove­ment Dis­trict. “But the re­al­ity is un­less there’s some­one there to en­force it, it’s not go­ing to hap­pen.”

As the de­bate plays out in­side City Hall, po­lice have con­tin­ued to ticket street ven­dors like Calderon. Los An­ge­les po­lice made more than 1,200 ar­rests for side­walk vend­ing the year be­fore last, ac­cord­ing to a city re­port.

“No­body wants to take away Ms. Calderon’s abil­ity to feed her fam­ily,” LAPD Cmdr. An­drew Smith said. “But we also have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to the busi­ness com­mu­nity. If we al­low some street vend­ing to start, pretty soon it’s not just the guy with the hot dog cart, it’s the lady with the Christ­mas or­na­ments, the guy with the pi­rated DVDs. It gets out of hand very quickly.”

At the Metropoli­tan Court­house, Of­fi­cer Al­fonso Flores laid out his case against Calderon: On a Novem­ber af­ter­noon, he saw her sell­ing on the side­walks of Los An­ge­les Street. Busi­ness own­ers and res­i­dents had com­plained about her set­ting up shop with her cart, Flores said.

Law stu­dent Kevin Whit­field be­gan to ques­tion him: Had he seen Calderon tak­ing cash? Had he seen her hand goods to some­one?

Flores said no. But he said that Calderon had ad­mit­ted her guilt and that he had asked her in Span­ish why she was sell­ing there when he had warned her so many times not to do so.

Flores went on to say that side­walk vend­ing had brought a host of ills to the area: trash, blocked side­walks that peo­ple with wheel­chairs couldn’t nav­i­gate, gang mem­bers who ex­torted the ven­dors. Peo­ple who lived and worked there were afraid, he said.

In the court­room, law stu­dent Greg Bonett ar­gued that the pros­e­cu­tion had not proved be­yond a rea­son­able doubt that Calderon was sell­ing goods, nor that Christ­mas or­na­ments were pro­hib­ited: City rules al­low for side­walk sales of pam­phlets, paint­ings and other items that are ex­pres­sive or “in­her­ently com­mu­nica­tive” to com­ply with the 1st Amend­ment, he pointed out.

Judge Keith Bor­jon seemed skep­ti­cal as Bonett raised one ar­gu­ment af­ter an­other. In the end, how­ever, Calderon was sen­tenced for only one ticket. Three cases were swiftly dis­missed be­cause the of­fi­cers had not been sub­poe­naed for them, and the judge dis­missed two more “in the in­ter­ests of jus­tice.” An­other had al­ready been dis­missed at ar­raign­ment.

Out­side the court­room, Calderon cast her gaze around in con­fu­sion be­fore some­one trans­lated into Span­ish what had hap­pened. Slowly her face crin­kled into a smile as she learned that all but one of the tick­ets had been dis­missed.

The judge sen­tenced her to a $50 fine, plus court fees — a penalty that ended up to­tal­ing more than $300.

Her at­tor­neys, who said that would equal 38 hours of com­mu­nity ser­vice, de­cided to ap­peal the re­main­ing ticket.

Still, Calderon was pleased that so many of her tick­ets had been wiped away.

Soon she would ven­ture back to the streets, push­ing her lit­tle cart in front of her.

And soon she would be hold­ing yet an­other ci­ta­tion from Flores, her cart con­fis­cated by the po­lice.

On a bright, busy Sun­day on Los An­ge­les Street, be­tween the throng of shop­pers search­ing for blinged-out smart­phone cases and dis­pos­able fash­ions, fel­low ven­dors gath­ered around Calderon, mur­mur­ing among them­selves and try­ing to re­as­sure her.

An­der­son-Barker, who ar­rived af­ter Calderon was cited, was in­dig­nant as she read the blue slip of pa­per.

“I’m sorry, Rosa,” the at­tor­ney said in Span­ish. “I’m sorry. This is what we’re fight­ing for.”

Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

ROSA CALDERON, right, and Bertha Arce wave at the of­fi­cer who re­peat­edly cites Calderon, whose de­fend­ers think po­lice could bet­ter use their re­sources.

Ir­fan Khan Los An­ge­les Times

ROSA CALDERON LOOKS back at the judge, as UCLA law pro­fes­sor In­grid V. Eagly, left, and stu­dents Kevin Whit­field and Greg Bonett leave the court­room.

Anne Cu­sack Los An­ge­les Times

YEARS EAR­LIER, Calderon says, “the street was full of ven­dors, and they said noth­ing.”

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