By: Joseph Pileri, Contributor
Last month, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation legalizing street vending across California. This bill prohibits California localities from outlawing street vending outright or treating any violation of street vending regulations as a criminal offense, limiting penalties to administrative fines payable only on an as-needed basis. The law also requires prosecutors to dismiss any currently pending prosecution brought under street vending regulations.
This bill follows years of efforts by advocates in Los Angeles to legalize street vending in the city. For years, street vending was illegal in Los Angeles despite the near ubiquity of fruit carts, taco stands, and hot dog vendors. There was a blanket ban on street vending that exposed any street vendor to potential fines and criminal violations. Advocates recently renewed their push to change this law so that thousands of immigrant street vendors would not find themselves facing deportation because of operating a street vending business.
Los Angeles was not alone in its treatment of street vending. Municipalities around the country have criminalized street vending or the violation of street vending regulations. This is an example of what I term “the criminalization of microenterprise” – local jurisdictions completely outlawing street vending and other business activities or treating violations of licensing rules as a criminal offense. I am working on a project to survey municipalities around the country and study their treatment of street vending. The results, thus far, are surprising. Though many localities require street vendors to be licensed and may impose fines and civil penalties for violating these licensing requirements, cities from Detroit to Houston treat the failure to comply with street vending regulations as a criminal violation. Washington, DC attempted to criminalize street vending in 2014.
These laws have disproportionately negative effects on would-be entrepreneurs who already face barriers to entering the formal economy. Immigrants, those with legal status and those without, individuals returning from incarceration, and individuals with time-consuming childcare and family obligations often look to start microenterprises like street vending to provide for themselves and their families. When these types of businesses are criminalized, vulnerable individuals may be deterred from starting these enterprises or may face severe penalties, including deportation or incarceration, for what would otherwise be a simple licensing violation.
Concerns about public health and safety – particularly when it comes to food – are understandable. The public has a right to know that food, even when bought and consumed on the street, is safe. The California law, however, does not force Angelenos to take health risks with every bite of their al pastor taco. This legislation explicitly permits cities to pass ordinances related to public health and safety. Cities may even have an easier time regulating the safety of food sold by street vendors now that proprietors of these businesses no longer face potential criminal penalties.
Much work remains to understand the extent to which cities and states criminalize street vending and other microenterprises. California has taken an important first step that both protects the health of the public and allows individuals to support themselves and their families. Angelenos who love grabbing a pupusa or a bacon-wrapped hot dog on the go will also be appreciative. By criminalizing microenterprise, cities raise barriers to entry for vulnerable entrepreneurs, unduly burden those entrepreneurs most at risk, and detract from the vibrancy of communities. I hope that California is only the first to reverse this trend.
 2018 Cal. Legis. Serv. Ch. 459 (S.B. 946) (WEST).
 L.A., Cal., Municipal Code Section 42.00 (1994).
 Detroit, Mich., City Code § 41-6-2 (2017).
 Hous., Tex., Code of Ordinances § 22-91 (2018).