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San Francisco Assemblyman Phil Ting has reportedly sponsored a bill to decriminalize jaywalking, citing the racial bias in its enforcement and how they have led to life-threatening encounters with law enforcement. AB1238, called “The Freedom to Walk Act,” would reportedly legalize crossings outside of a crosswalk or against a traffic light when safe. The bill also calls for the elimination of all fines and fees that come with jaywalking.
“Whether it’s someone’s life or the hundreds of dollars in fines, the cost is too much for a relatively minor infraction,” Ting reportedly said. “It’s time to reconsider how we use our law enforcement resources and whether our jaywalking laws really do protect pedestrians.”
Current California law says it is unlawful for a pedestrian to jaywalk or walk in areas where pedestrian traffic is not allowed. Just like any driver, pedestrians are also required to obey traffic laws and signals. This means that any pedestrian who fails to follow pedestrian rules will almost certainly be found partially liable for a pedestrian accident, especially if their failure to follow applicable pedestrian laws contributed to causing the accident.
Supporters of the bill cite statistics showing how people of color are disproportionately cited and fined as much as $500 for the offense. Black adults are almost 10 times more likely to be cited for jaywalking than white people. Not to mention such stops often escalate situations. For example, last year in San Clemente police stopped a Black man, 44-year-old Kurt Reinhold, and after he resisted officers, they eventually shot him to death.
“We don’t know why the data shows arbitrary enforcement but there is arbitrary enforcement. It doesn’t lead to safer streets. It criminalizes people who just want to cross the street. We want to make sure people can cross the street safely and not get a citation,” Ting reportedly said.
Moreover, citations also negatively impact lower-income Californians, as fines can reach several hundred dollars due to fees tacked on by courts and local jurisdictions.
Jared Sanchez of the California Bike Coalition, who is supporting the measure, reportedly said: “Everybody jaywalks, whether White, Brown, Black, Asian, all over. But who’s being stopped most frequently disproportionately and who’s being enforced against? It is unfair and unjust.” He also reportedly said jaywalking laws create opportunities for police to racially profile, and a stop for harmless jaywalking can turn into a potentially life-threatening police encounter, especially for Black people, who are disproportionately targeted and suffer the most severe consequences of inequitable law enforcement.
“We can have safe streets without criminal punishment for walking — and we have seen this to be true in wealthy, white neighborhoods where jaywalking occurs but citations are not enforced,” said Rio Scharf, Equal Justice Works Fellow with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF).
As written in Ting’s press release, jaywalking laws were enacted in the 1930s by the emerging auto industry, which saw the number of deadly car accidents increase dramatically in the prior decade and wanted to shift the blame from drivers to pedestrians. Over the years, street designs primarily considered the needs of drivers, failing to account for people who aren’t in cars.
The State Assembly will make a decision probably in Apr. If approved by the legislature and signed by the governor, California would join Virginia in decriminalizing jaywalking. Across the pond in the U.K., pedestrians are allowed to cross the street mid-block, yet it has roughly half as many pedestrian deaths as the U.S.