Despite racial disparities in tickets, jaywalking will remain a crime in California
Speaker 1: (00:00)
Earlier this month, governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have decriminalized jaywalking when no cars are present. The bill was aimed at tackling racial disparities and how jaywalking laws are enforced KPBS. Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen looks at how those disparities exist in San Diego.
Speaker 2: (00:21)
Wait, we've all done it. You're trying to cross the street, but the light is taking forever or maybe the nearest crosswalk is an absurdly long detour. No cars are rebound. So you look both ways and jaywalk. Most of the time it's harmless. And most of the time getting a ticket for jaywalking. Isn't a big concern. That's not how things played out for Robert Don Moyer.
Speaker 3: (00:43)
I think it was, I think it was May 3rd. Uh, I was coming back from the dentist. It was midday and I, um, walked across the street.
Speaker 2: (00:52)
Don Meyer says he wasn't jaywalking. He was in the crosswalk and says he made it to the other side of Robinson avenue in Hillcrest before the red hand signal went from flashing to solid. But a San Diego police officer says he was jaywalking and wrote him a ticket. She told him police were stepping up jaywalking enforcement because of a rise in pedestrian collisions. I didn't want
Speaker 3: (01:14)
Debated, but I said, gee, I, I, I haven't seen much of that, particularly in the daytime here. Uh, I have seen lots of people blatantly running red lights, and I've almost been hit on a number of occasions by people blatantly running led red lights when I had the right to cross. And I've learned to be very, very cautious.
Speaker 2: (01:33)
Don Moyer plans on contesting, his ticket and a trial next year, bogus or not. His jaywalking ticket was one of more than 5,000 given to pedestrians in San Diego since 2015. And those tickets disproportionately targeted black people, 16% of the tickets went to blacks, even though they make up only 6% of the city's population. Similar racial disparities exist in cities across California.
Speaker 4: (01:59)
People are disproportionately affected by almost every type of criminalization
Speaker 2: (02:03)
And Rios is an attorney and executive director of uprise theater, a non-profit that educates people on their legal rights. She says the disparities are proof of racial bias among San Diego police officers. Black people are also overrepresented in the homeless community, which she says is a frequent target of jaywalking tickets. And blacks are more likely to live in neighborhoods that lacks safe and abundant crosswalks.
Speaker 4: (02:28)
So when you're dealing with a landscape that doesn't have safe areas for you to cross the street, anyway, Jay walking is going to become acceptable or the norm the true issue is that the community doesn't have the appropriate support for, for pedestrian travel,
Speaker 2: (02:45)
Racial justice, activists like Rios have been trying to decriminalize jaywalking in California for years, they say jaywalking laws, only punish behavior. That's usually logical and safe, but the latest effort at decriminalization failed this month with governor Gavin Newsome's veto of AB 1238, that bill would have legalized jaywalking as long as there's no oncoming traffic. It was opposed by law enforcement groups who said it would encourage unsafe pedestrian behavior and the California coalition for children's safety and health here's that group's program directors. Steve Barrow speaking at a Senate committee hearing in June.
Speaker 5: (03:22)
We need children growing up, understanding how to appropriately get through our really busy streets. And that is adhering to red lights, crossing out the crosswalks, not jaywalking and, uh, paying attention to all the pedestrian traffic safety laws. Robert
Speaker 2: (03:40)
[inaudible] who's white and works as a university. Professor acknowledges he has privileges that others who get jaywalking tickets probably don't have, he can take time off work to fight his ticket in court. And he knew to look up the exact California vehicle code violation to see if it matches what really happened. He's ambivalent about whether jaywalking should be legalized, but he doesn't think tickets and fines are an effective way to protect pedestrians.
Speaker 3: (04:06)
I couldn't help, but wonder where they trying to beef up revenue. I mean, I don't mean I'm not accusing because I don't really know, but it was certainly a thought that crossed my mind, particularly when I saw the amount of the ticket,
Speaker 2: (04:19)
That amount he'll have to pay. If he loses in court $197.
Speaker 1: (04:25)
Joining me is KPBS Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen it Andrew. Welcome. Hi
Speaker 2: (04:30)
Speaker 1: (04:30)
It seems that crossing in the middle of an empty street would be very different from a pedestrian dodging traffic to run across the street. So would both actions though, make you liable for a jaywalking ticket?
Speaker 2: (04:42)
Yes. Under current law, it doesn't matter if the streets are completely empty or if it's rush hour and they're full of cars. Both are, can get you a ticket. If an officer catches you and chooses to write you a ticket, as opposed to maybe giving you a warning. And in reporting this story, I actually spoke with a small number of people who shared their experiences of getting tickets for jaywalking. One of them was a young man who got a ticket while he was walking home from a bar in Pacific beach. Uh, it was pretty late at night and there were no cars around whatsoever. It was also on, uh, an intersection where there's not a lot of through traffic. It certainly begs the question who is this harming, you know, and, and is what's the severity of that harm and is a ticket of around $200 can measure it with that harm. There was another young woman that I spoke with who was ticketed for jaywalking, and she was allowed to do community service. Judges can allow that as an alternative to a fine, if you can prove it would be an undue financial burden on you. Uh, and her community service ironically, was picking up trash on the side of the road, which kind of put her in danger of getting hit by a car, which ostensibly is what jaywalking criminalization is meant to deter people from doing
Speaker 1: (05:50)
Advocates claim. Jaywalking tickets can be used as a form of harassment. Why is that?
Speaker 2: (05:56)
Well, an Rios who you heard from in, uh, my story formerly worked for a nonprofit called think dignity, which advocates for people experiencing homelessness and often represents them and defends them in court. And she put jaywalking in the same category as a crime like encroachments, which is blocking the public right of way. You know, police can issue tickets to unsheltered people who might be staying in intense on the sidewalk. And she describes these crimes as tools by police to keep homeless people out of certain areas because they're undesirable. Police can also use jaywalking as a pretext
Speaker 1: (06:32)
To question an individual that they may be a suspect is involved in other kinds of criminal activities. They can use it to initiate. What's called a consent search where the police officer lacks a warrant. They lacked probable cause to actually search someone. But if a person doesn't know that they can refuse to be searched by the police, they may just agree to it. And, and police may find drugs or other kinds of contraband. So jaywalking, like other kinds of minor traffic violations or other sort of quality of life crimes can become a Dragnet for police essentially to target different types of people or different communities. You did a report recently on how San Diego is nowhere near reaching its goal of zero auto deaths and injuries is jaywalking. One of the reasons why
Speaker 2: (07:17)
It's certainly the case that pedestrians may miscalculate how fast a car is approaching on a street. If they're jaywalking and they may get hit and seriously injured or even killed, if that's the case, police often attribute the death to jaywalking alone. They will say the pedestrian was at fault. They may not factor into account. Other things like how fast the person was driving, whether they may have been looking at the phone while they were driving, or if they're distracted. In other ways, those things are really hard to prove and may get left out of the conversation. Particularly if the pedestrian is dead or if they're hospitalized before the police can question them, they never get to tell their side of the story. The other factor I think is that urban planners are really starting to see jaywalking is a symptom of poor pedestrian infrastructure. So if walking to the nearest crosswalk is going to add five or 10 minutes to your trip, it's a kind of logical thing. And as I said in the start of this story, most of us have done this before. And that's why advocates for safer streets. See the criminalization of jaywalking is just ineffective at protecting pedestrians, especially when you compare it to say for infrastructure like streetlights crosswalks and traffic calming to just slow down cars.
Speaker 1: (08:26)
And is this lack of pedestrian infrastructure, a problem in San Diego?
Speaker 2: (08:31)
Absolutely. You know, you can put a number on it, even at these are factored into the city's infrastructure deficit, how much the city needs to add and, um, repair streetlights or, um, other types of, uh, you know, crosswalks, things like that. You wouldn't know necessarily that it's actually legal to cross a street in an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection. I live in university Heights, which is, as far as San Diego goes a fairly privileged area. And we don't even have, you know, marked crosswalks that a lot of the intersections or stop signs to, uh, either ask cars to slow down or stop. And in places like, uh, city Heights or Southeast San Diego, where, you know, that have been historically under invested in not only do they lack crosswalks, they may also lack sidewalks. So pedestrian infrastructure is absolutely a problem. And it's a result of decades of the city, public officials and our budgets prioritizing the speed of cars and the convenience of driving over the safety of everyone on the road.
Speaker 1: (09:29)
Decriminalization bill was not signed into law. Jaywalking can still get you, as you mentioned, a very expensive ticket in California. Is there any effort on the local level to cut down on the number of jaywalking tickets issued? Well,
Speaker 2: (09:43)
Mayor Todd, Gloria has said or said earlier this year that he wants to work with advocates to define what pretech stops are and clarify when they can be used by police. Um, as I mentioned, jaywalking is, is often grouped into those types of criminal statutes that police can use as a pretext stop. It's unclear. However, whether jaywalking would be a part of that conversation or if it would, you know, any action that, uh, mayor Gloria May ultimately take would impact jaywalking tickets. The mayor could direct police to deprioritize citing pedestrian violations, um, and prioritize motorists. Instead, I I've looked at the data and there are actually many more jaywalking tickets issued over the last five years than, um, citations for, uh, say motorists, not, uh, yielding to pedestrians or exercising due care when pedestrians are present, the city attorney's office could also decline to prosecute jaywalking tickets because they handle misdemeanors and infractions. And so, you know, they could use their prosecutorial discretion to just say, these are not crimes that we believe are important to prosecute, but I don't see that happening anytime soon. Honestly,
Speaker 1: (10:50)
I've been speaking with KPBS, Metro reporter, Andrew Bowen, Andrew. Thank
Speaker 2: (10:54)
You. Thank you, Maureen.
Robert Donmoyer was not in a particular hurry when he was walking from his dentist's office to a cafe on 5th Avenue in Hillcrest last May. He crossed the street in the crosswalk and kept walking on the sidewalk. When a San Diego police officer hollered at him to stop, he had no idea why.
Donmoyer ended up with a ticket for jaywalking — in his case, violating a law that prohibits pedestrians from being in a crosswalk when the red hand or "Don't Walk" light turns from flashing to solid. Pedestrians can also be ticketed for crossing the street mid-block outside marked crosswalks. Donmoyer said he made it across the street with time to spare and plans on contesting the ticket in a trial next year.
Bogus or not, his ticket for jaywalking was one of more than 5,000 issued to pedestrians in San Diego since 2015. Police sometimes do sweeps where they target pedestrians, and the police department says this is done to protect pedestrian safety. The officer told Donmoyer police were stepping up jaywalking enforcement as a response to traffic collisions in the area — something that struck Donmoyer as odd.
"I've almost been hit on a number of occasions by people blatantly running red lights when I had the right to cross," he said. "I said, 'Gee, if you really are concerned about (pedestrian safety), maybe you should do something about that.'"
For years, safe streets advocates have been pushing for the decriminalization of jaywalking — a crime invented by the automobile industry in the early 20th century. They argue jaywalking laws punish reasonable, often safe behavior, and that pedestrians can be better protected with infrastructure like streetlights, crosswalks and measures to slow down traffic.
Racial justice advocates also point to clear disparities in the enforcement of jaywalking laws, which they say can be weaponized to harass people of color. Black people represented 16% of all San Diego jaywalking citations issued between January 2015 and June 2021, according to data provided by the San Diego Police Department, despite being only 6% of the city's population. Similar disparities exist in cities all across California.
Anne Rios, an attorney and executive director of Uprise Theatre, a nonprofit that educates people on their legal rights, said she was not surprised by the racial disparities. She said it shows evidence of racial bias among San Diego police officers, similar to the findings of a 2016 SDSU study of traffic stops. It found Black and Latinx people are more likely than whites to be questioned and searched, but less likely to be found with contraband.
But Rios added racial disparities could be compounded by other factors. Black people are overrepresented among the homeless community, which is a frequent target of jaywalking tickets, she said. And, she added, Blacks are more likely to live in neighborhoods that lack safe and abundant crosswalks.
"Jaywalking is going to become acceptable or the norm just because it's just how you conduct your everyday life," Rios said. "The true issue is that the community doesn't have the appropriate support for pedestrian travel."
Jaywalking is among several low-level violations that police can use to conduct "pretext stops" — when an officer suspects some type of criminal activity but has no probable cause to search or arrest someone. Activists have called on Mayor Todd Gloria and the City Council to bar pretext stops in San Diego.
Gloria has opted to instead "collaboratively define what actions constitute pretextual stops, identify ways in which those pretextual stops can be limited, and align community expectations and police practices on this issue," according to an April press release.
The police department did not respond to a request for comment in time to be included in this story.
The latest effort at decriminalizing jaywalking in California failed with Gov. Gavin Newsom's veto of AB 1238, a bill that would have legalized jaywalking as long as there's no oncoming traffic. The bill won support from a long list of groups supporting traffic safety, climate action and racial justice, but was opposed by law enforcement groups.
"Allowing pedestrians to enter roadways at effectively any place or any time where no 'immediate hazard exists' will cause confusion and remove expectations drivers and pedestrians may have about safe roadway usage," wrote the California State Sheriffs' Association in an opposition letter to Newsom.
Newsom said in his veto message that unequal enforcement of jaywalking laws was "unacceptable and must be addressed," but that he feared the bill would encourage unsafe pedestrian behavior.
Those who study pedestrian safety argue that concern is misguided. Angie Schmidt, author of the 2020 book "Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America," testified in support of AB 1238.
"The cultural impulse has been to blame these deaths or injuries when they occur on being the result of one individual who acted stupidly or made a bad choice," Schmidt told the Assembly Transportation Committee in April. "But in urban planning, we recognize that this is a systemic issue, and the fault lies with the wider system, which is hostile to those on foot or wheelchair."
Donmoyer, who is white and works as a university professor, acknowledged he's benefited from privileges that Black or low-income people cited for jaywalking don’t have. He can take the time to fight his ticket in court, and he knew to look up the precise California Vehicle Code violation listed on the ticket to see if it matched what really happened.
Still, Donmoyer said he was ambivalent about whether jaywalking should be decriminalized. But if he’s unsuccessful in contesting the ticket, he said the $197 fine he’ll have to pay is excessive. And he doesn't think tickets and fines are an effective way to deter jaywalking.
"I could help but wonder, were they trying to beef up revenue?" he said.