Judge rules Portland’s sit-lie law constitutional, reasonable

Sept. 19, 2008

A move to have Portland’s controversial sidewalk obstructions ordinance, commonly known as sit-lie, declared unconstitutional went nowhere before Judge Terry Hannon in Multnomah County Circuit Court today.

The case was brought to court by attorney William Meyers on behalf of his client, Correygene Douglas Newman, who did not attend today’s proceedings. In addition to finding the ordinance constitutional, Judge Hannon ruled that Newman was guilty on charges of violating the ordinance on multiple occasions in November 2007, and sentenced him to 8 hours of community service.

“It is constitutional and it is reasonable,” Judge Hannon told the courtroom, after nearly two hours of statements and testimony on the issue. Hannon said he based his ruling on the fact that violating the law is not a criminal offense, and that it carries a minor fine of $250 with the option of community service. He also noted that the ordinance only applies to two limited commercial districts – downtown Portland and the Rose Quarter – and that it is limited to daylight hours. The ordinance prohibits people from sitting or lying on the sidewalk in those areas between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Hannon dismissed Meyer’s argument that the law targeted homeless people, despite the fact that the majority of those warned or cited under the law in the past year were homeless or of unknown residence. Meyers said the law violated constitutional rights that protect free speech and prohibit cruel and unusual punishment, echoing the arguments of Portland advocates for people experiencing homelessness. City attorney Ellen Osoniach argued that the law doesn’t violate civil rights because there is no expressed “right” to sit on the sidewalk.

Hannon said the law may affect a specific group, but that does not necessarily mean they are targeted for citations. Hannon likened the ordinance to laws that prohibit people riding bicycles on downtown sidewalks in the interest of public safety.

Hannon made no reference to the fact that Newman had said on two occasions when he was cited that he was protesting the sit-lie ordinance. Citing officer Craig Dobson testified that Newman said he used a sign to protest the ordinance, but that it rotated with other signs for panhandling. Newman was cited while sitting on the sidewalk panhandling outside of RiteAid at the corner of Alder Street and Sixth Avenue. Dobson said he was called there to investigate a report of aggressive panhandling, but that he didn’t witness any aggressive behavior.

“A lot of times they call about aggressive panhandling when in fact, they’re just panhandling,” Dobson told the court.

More on this case to come.

Posted by Joanne Zuhl

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