Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Stephen K. Bushong has ruled that the city of Portland’s sidewalk-obstruction ordinance — commonly referred to as sit-lie, unconstitutionally exceeds the city’s authority.
The ruling was issued June 19, and grants the motion to dismiss a sit-lie case being defended by attorney Clayton Lance.
“This ordinances has been found unconstitutional on three separate and distinct grounds,” Lance told Street Roots. “That’s a heck of a lot of unconstitutionality for one little ordinance out of the city. It just is not going to work and they just keep trying to make it fit, and it will never be able to fit, in my opinion.”
The sit-lie law prohibits sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks between the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. The city has said that it is to keep the sidewalks free of obstructions. Records show that the majority of people cited under the law are homeless.
Judge Bushong ruled that the city’s law conflicts with and is pre-empted by state law; State v. Robison, which Lance says already allows the city to penalize people for obstructing sidewalks.
“The (sit-lie) ordinance does not at all deal with obstruction. That’s a myth,” Lance said. “It was to move the transient and the homeless because the transient and homeless were sitting on the sidewalks in downtown Portland. Nothing else.”
As Lance noted, this is the latest round in the city’s failed attempts to institute a sit-lie law. In 2004, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Marilyn Litzenberger ruled that the city’s 2003 version of the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. The current version was a response to that ruling with more specific information on what was and was not prohibited. The Court of Appeals further ruled that the 2003 version was pre-empted by state law, the same as Bushong’s ruling.
“In the United States, we fundamentally respect the rights of individuals to meet, to assemble, to communicate and to use public property. And (the city’s) attempts at curtailing those fundamental rights have been unconstitutional every step of the way.”
It is presumed by many that the city will revise its ordinance for another round. Lance says he is ready to defend any charges under the ordinance for free.
“Because of social justice and compassion,” Lance said. “We need to have social justice and compassion. And this law lacks that completely.”
In May, the City Council voted 4-1 to extend the ordinance until October, with the only dissenting voice on the council being Commissioner Randy Leonard.
City Commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz are currently leading a community process for input on the controversial ordinance.
Fritz told Street Roots she is reviewing the ruling and communicating with the City Attorney’s office before making a formal comment.
Fritz does say, “I am currently hoping our public meetings over the summer will go ahead as planned, as now more than ever we need to talk together to figure out solutions that work for everyone.”
“I never supported the sit-lie, because of its effect on some of our most vulnerable citizens,” says Leonard. “I am happy the courts agree.”
“Everyone at City Hall is circling the wagons and trying to figure out next steps,” says Matt Grumm with Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s office. “People are aware of the decision and next week we will have a little more clarity.”
Asked if the police are currently enforcing the law after the ruling, Grumm says, “The commissioner has not asked the police to stop or discontinue with enforcement.”
The court’s ruling was welcome news at Sisters Of The Road, which has campaigned against the ordinance since its creation.
“This ruling re-affirms what Sisters has known from the beginning,” says Brendan Phillips with Sisters Of The Road. “The sit-lie law violates the human rights of Portlanders, it (also) violates the constitutional rights of Portlanders and hopefully this (ruling) will lead the city to immediately repeal the ordinance.”
Seven years of sit-lie; A history of Portland’s sidewalk suits