Florida Town Shows No Love For Valentine’s Day Vendors

April 1, 2013

In 2011, the Institute for Justice sued the city of Hialeah, Fla., on behalf of street vendors who merely want to earn an honest living. The city theoretically allowed street vending, but through a series of unconstitutional laws, restricted vending practices and made it impossible to vend effectively. In January, IJ secured a partial victory when the city amended its vending code to repeal the most anticompetitive and constitutionally troublesome provision—one that prohibited vendors from selling within 300 feet of their brick-and-mortar competitors.

IJ continues to litigate two remaining provisions that make it impossible to work: prohibitions on standing and displaying merchandise. In continuing this fight, we do so as litigators but also as activists, and we call upon all of IJ’s teams to accomplish our goal of freeing our clients.

There is no better example of IJ’s multifaceted approach than this past Valentine’s Day in Hialeah. Because most of the vendors in Hialeah—and IJ’s lead client in the case—are flower vendors, the city habitually increases enforcement against them around important holidays like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day to protect brick-and-mortar businesses from competition. But this year, IJ’s team was ready for the city’s anticompetitive crackdown.

Armed with cameras, the IJ team of litigators-turned-activists canvassed Hialeah on the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, urging vendors to notify us when they witnessed Valentine’s Day enforcement. Anticipating the heightened enforcement, we tipped off the local press and garnered several stories, which ran in local news outlets.

On the day before Valentine’s Day, we received a call that shone a light on the city’s new and creative approach to enforcement this year: Instead of harassing vendors, whom the city knew were backed by IJ, city police officers bullied private property owners into kicking vendors off their property—even though the property owners wanted the vendors there—and threatened the property owners with fines.

Throughout Valentine’s Day, IJ Florida Chapter attorneys stayed in Hialeah and waited for the inevitable calls from vendors who were being harassed by police. The city didn’t disappoint. Several vendors in the city received warnings from police officers and were instructed not to display any merchandise and not to stand still. One police officer went as far as to say, “We don’t want the public seeing [vendors’] merchandise.” Meanwhile, police left alone brick-and-mortar stores with outdoor displays.

IJ’s team was close by, and we arrived on the scene after each call we received, documented our interactions with police, and tried to get to the bottom of each enforcement action. By the end of the day, police were clearly wising up to our tactics, and when we approached a scene, they left immediately.

Although there were some clearly discriminatory enforcement actions, IJ’s team thwarted what could have been much worse. Last year, the vendors were told they could not vend at all, and licensed vendors were barred from their sales locations altogether.

Because of IJ’s combined efforts in litigation, activism and media relations, Hialeah street vendors were able to vend on the single-most important day of the year. Last year, vendors lost thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise. This year, they were able to work and spread the love, one flower at a time. And as long as we need to, we will keep the heat on the city in court until the vendors are free at last.

Claudia Murray is an IJ Florida Chapter attorney.

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