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(Compiled from Fox5NY and Durango Herald by Mary Shinn) – With a 5-0 vote, a Colorado city has approved an ordinance that will make sitting or lying down on downtown sidewalks, curbs, or other public areas illegal. The measure passed at the May 15, 2018, Durango City Council meeting.
Council member Dick White said the ordinance is meant to improve the safety and atmosphere in the city’s downtown. The rule bans sitting or lying down on sidewalks, curbs, streets, railways, alleys, parking spaces, or other publicly owned property for pedestrian or vehicle travel in the downtown area from 7 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.
Councilors defended the ordinance and said that it would not discriminate against panhandlers or anyone else. “People can stand with a sign on Main Avenue all day long and they are absolutely within their First Amendment rights,” White said.
The City Council acted after hearing numerous complaints from business owners and visitors about people lying in the middle of the sidewalks in the downtown business district. One council member wondered why the ban wasn’t in effect 24 hours a day.
The rule was billed as a safety measure because of the hazards of navigating around people blocking sidewalks and areas where cars drive. The ordinance noted that tourists are often not familiar with the area, leading to increased concerns about safety.
Exemptions include people experiencing medical emergencies, people with disabilities, children in strollers, or those attending parades, festivals, performances, or other special events. Violators can be fined up to $200.
After receiving a warning, offenders of the new law could face fines. The first fine would not exceed $100, and the second fine would not exceed $200. A municipal judge could impose a lower fine, if appropriate, City Attorney Dirk Nelson said.
The ordinance also allows people to “rest” on benches. (Residents are allowed to sit on furniture installed by the city or a business.)
The crowd was split on the issue. Some residents praised the council for backing the ordinance, and others were concerned the rule was targeting panhandlers and homeless residents. Business owners spoke in favor of the ordinance before the vote was taken.
Durango is a small city in southwestern Colorado, near the New Mexico border with a population of about 18,500 people.
The ordinance was based on similar laws that have held up to legal challenges, including ordinances in Colorado Springs and Tempe, Arizona, Dirk Nelson said.
“I wouldn’t have brought an ordinance to you that I didn’t think was legally supportable,” he said in response to questions from councilors.
Compiled from Fox 5NY and the Durango Herald. The Associated Press contributed to the Fox5NY report.
1. Define ordinance.
2. Why did the Durango, Colorado City Council pass the May 15 ordinance?
3. What is the purpose of the ordinance passed unanimously at the May 15 Durango City Council meeting?
4. a) What does the ordinance prohibit?
b) What is the penalty for violating the ordinance?
5. a) Define exemption.
b) Who/when are people exempt from the ordinance?
6. Consider the following:
- Did you know until recently, most towns and cities had vagrancy laws? In legal terminology, vagrancy refers to the offense of persons who are without visible means of support or domicile while able to work.
- There were also prohibitions on loitering, which is the act of remaining in a particular public place for a protracted time without any apparent purpose.
Do you think people should be permitted to sit and/or lie on the sidewalk all day? (If you think they should be allowed to do so, would it make a difference if there were just a few as opposed to tens or hundreds?) Do you think towns/cities should be able to have laws prohibiting vagrancy or loitering? Explain your answer.
7. The US Supreme Court has ruled that begging is a protected form of speech and cities cannot ban panhandling outright. What do you think? Ask a parent the same question.
- Do a Google search and try to find videos or photos of people lying on sidewalks in downtown Durango – something that has been an ongoing problem for at least 3 years. What do you think of the results?
- Colorado legalized the use of recreational marijuana in 2014. When one news report suggested it has caused the rise in homeless panhandlers in Durango, residents / business owners in an article in the Durango Herald disputed the assertion. What do you think? Was the first report inaccurate? Were business owners afraid to be known as being opposed to homeless people?
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