Last Friday, San Diego’s mayor announced that the city plans to start taking street vendors’ equipment as part of a crackdown on illegal competition. The mayor’s plan to impound private property may please brick-and-mortar businesses clamoring to keep out street vendors, but it almost certainly infringes on Americans’ civil liberties.
Last year, at the bidding of restaurants, the city of San Diego introduced the Sidewalk Vending Ordinance to establish new rules for street vending. Initially, the regulations appeared to assuage restaurants’ complaints about street vending. But in recent months, brick-and-mortar businesses demanded that the city enforce the new rules more stringently.
City leaders responded last week, announcing a plan to crack down on street vending through the immediate impoundment of any illegal food vendors’ equipment, according to a statement from San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria. Nowhere in the mayor’s statement does he explain how vendors can recover their equipment, nor does it say whether individuals have any opportunity to appeal the seizures.
The mayor’s plan of impounding vendors’ equipment is reminiscent of civil forfeiture, a process whereby the government takes an individual’s private property and can keep the proceeds from the seized property for itself. When a government entity seizes someone’s private property, it not only infringes on their civil liberties, but it then places a legal and financial burden on the property owner to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs.
“The government should not allow itself to become one competitor’s henchman by taking another competitor’s property. Frankly, it is outrageous,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Justin Pearson. “It is also misguided. The relevant research shows that street vendors help local brick-and-mortar businesses—including restaurants—by attracting more customers to the area. San Diego’s government didn’t do its homework.”
Each year, billions of dollars of private property are seized from Americans through civil forfeiture. In 2018 alone, 42 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. departments of Justice and Treasury forfeited more than $3 billion, according to the Institute for Justice’s “Policing for Profit” report.
Whatever the city feels it needs to do to enforce its regulation, it needs to do so in a manner that respects private property rights. Additionally, San Diego should reconsider whether its street vending restrictions are good policy.
Street food is safe, and vendors are a valuable part of many local economies. In Boston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Louisville, Miami, and Washington D.C., food trucks and carts averaged fewer sanitation violations than restaurants by a significant margin, according to IJ’s “Street Eats, Safe Eats: How Food Trucks and Carts Stack Up to Restaurants on Sanitation” report.
Food trucks and carts create thousands of jobs, oftentimes for immigrant communities, and contribute thousands of dollars, in local, state, and federal taxes. Moreover, street vending can serve as the first rung on the ladder of socio-economic ascension. A street vendor today could become a restaurateur one day.
Simply taking someone’s private property indefinitely with no recourse isn’t just an infringement of our civil liberties; it’s a violation of every American’s right to earn an honest living without unnecessary government interference.