Victory for El Paso Mobile Food Vendors

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · April 26, 2011

El Paso, Texas—Today, El Paso officials passed a new ordinance that eliminates protectionist regulations against mobile food vendors. The new ordinance comes only three months after four El Paso mobile food vendors teamed up with the Institute for Justice to file Castaneda v. City of El Paso, a federal civil rights lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the city’s mobile vending restrictions.

Officials made it illegal for vendors to operate within 1,000 feet of a restaurant or convenience store and prohibited vendors from stopping to await customers anywhere in the city. This successful constitutional challenge also marks the Institute’s first victory in its National Street Vending Initiative, a nationwide litigation and activism effort to vindicate the right of street vendors to earn an honest living.

“El Paso seems to have recognized that mobile vendors are an important element of its business community,” said Matt Miller, executive director of the Institute for Justice Texas Chapter and lead attorney on the case. “The old ordinance effectively turned El Paso into a ‘no vending’ zone, serving the sole purpose of protecting favored businesses from competition.”

The federal lawsuit challenged the old ordinance because it violates the vendors’ constitutional right to earn an honest living free from unreasonable and arbitrary government interference. The 1,000-foot separation requirement and the prohibition on waiting for customers curbside did nothing to protect public health or safety—they simply protected brick-and-mortar businesses from competition.

“Using government power to place burdensome restrictions on street vendors in order to protect brick-and-mortar businesses from competition is not a valid use of the government’s police power,” said Arif Panju, an attorney at the Institute for Justice Texas Chapter. “Across the country, cities are slamming the door in vendors’ faces by making it virtually impossible for them to operate. Cities like Chicago, San Antonio, Baltimore, Colorado Springs, and Jackson, Mississippi should be encouraging the entrepreneurship of street vendors, not trying to stifle it with protectionist restrictions.”

El Paso vendors are now free vend (with certain limited exceptions) anywhere in the city, and restaurants must compete on the basis of quality, service, and price—rather than using the power of government to shut down mobile vendors. Vendors can also park at the curb during the breakfast, lunch, or dinner rush, rather than only being allowed to stop if customers are already present.

“All I want to do is work,” said Maria Robledo, one of the plaintiffs. “I am happy that the city is not going to stop me from running my business.” Robledo has operated her mobile vending business in El Paso for over 13 years. Lead plaintiff Yvonne Castaneda has operated Destiny’s Ice Cream and Snacks—named after her daughter—for five years. “I am very grateful for the outcome,” said Castaneda, “now I can vend without the fear of receiving citations for simply earning an honest living.”

The Institute for Justice is the nation’s leading legal advocate for the rights of entrepreneurs. For more on this lawsuit and the IJ-Texas Chapter, click here.