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Despite racial disparities in tickets, jaywalking will remain a crime in California

A red hand illuminates on a pedestrian crosswalk light, Feb. 21, 2017.
Christopher Maue
A red hand illuminates on a pedestrian crosswalk light, Feb. 21, 2017.

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.'"

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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.

Robert Donmoyer walks across the street in a crosswalk as a left-turning car enters the crosswalk.
Andrew Bowen
Robert Donmoyer walks across Robinson Avenue, where he was ticketed for allegedly jaywalking, Oct. 11, 2021.

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.

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"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.

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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.

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Despite racial disparities in tickets, jaywalking will remain a crime in California

"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.

Activists have been pushing to decriminalize jaywalking statewide. In San Diego and elsewhere across the state there are racial disparities in how jaywalking laws are enforced with Black people disproportionately ticketed. However, a recent effort to legalize jaywalking was vetoed by Governor Gavin Newsom. Also, UC San Diego has a record-high number of students on campus now, but students say they are struggling for space in dining, parking and class enrollment. Plus, California Congressman Adam Schiff spoke with our partners at Cap Radio about how he believes claims of election fraud are tearing apart our democracy.