Daryl James: Crosswalk crimes look like jaywalking compared to police abuse

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Lines are “in” in tennis and baseball. They are “out” in football and basketball. The rules are less clear in track, where runners who touch lane markers only face disqualification if they improve their position.

Utah jaywalking laws also leave room for interpretation. Pedestrians must stay within the marked lines when crossing a road. But the rulebook says nothing about enforcement when a foot or stroller wheel inadvertently touches the white paint.

Apparently it makes a difference if you happen to live or work near a homeless shelter in downtown Salt Lake City. As The Salt Lake Tribune reports, police apply the harshest standard possible when conducting patrols near Pioneer Park.

One woman alleges she received a warning merely for stepping on a crosswalk line while staying mostly between the markers. Wimbledon or the Super Bowl could turn on such a fine point. Government intervention should not.

Unfortunately, such abuses abound nationwide. The Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm that works to keep government in check, catches police and other agencies doing much more than touching the lines. They cross into unconstitutional territory.

Police in Pagedale, Mo., targeted citizens for things as trivial as walking on the lefthand side of a crosswalk or wearing pants below the waist. Code enforcers in Charlestown, Ind., fined homeowners for having chipped paint or torn screens.

Utah has its own problems with government overreach. Revenue is one motive. Other times, agencies weaponize jaywalking laws or take other measures to discriminate against people on the fringes of the economy.

The state already got busted for singling out the homeless in 2012, when a federal court struck down an overbroad panhandling ban.

Occupational licensing can work the same way, singling out some for harassment while benefiting others. Just ask African hair braider Jestina Clayton, an Institute for Justice client from Centerville.

Utah regulators tried to force her to spend thousands of dollars on training that had little to do with her craft. Cosmetology schools appreciated the extra business, but a judge intervened to shut down the cronyism in 2012.

Other abuses continue. A 2017 report from the Institute for Justice shows that Utah licenses more lower-income occupations than average, and overall the state’s laws are the 13th most burdensome nationwide.

Utah also crosses the line with excessive fines, especially in the realm of traffic enforcement.

Mantua might be the worst offender. Despite having only 741 residents, the community north of Ogden cranked out 2,185 tickets in 2014 — accounting for more than 30% of the town’s revenue. The state Senate tried to cap the ratio at 25% in 2016, but the effort crashed in the House.

Another avenue of abuse is civil forfeiture, an inherently corrupt practice that allows police to seize and keep people’s property without ever charging them with a crime.

A 2015 Institute for Justice study of U.S. forfeiture laws gives Utah a “D-minus.”

The bad mark is partly due to the lack of transparency in a system that does not require local agencies to report their activities. A bigger problem is the state’s willingness to let police self-fund by keeping 100% of forfeited assets for themselves.

Discriminatory and protectionist policies hurt Utah. So do excessive fines and civil forfeitures.

Some lines are “in.” Other lines are “out.” But government always goes too far when it gives itself permission to enforce laws for any purpose other than serving the public interest.

Daryl James | Institute for Justice

Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit, public advocacy law firm in Arlington, Va.