Española police officers were expected to begin enforcing the city’s new ordinance prohibiting panhandling today, Saturday, Nov. 19.
Mayor John Ramon Vigil, along with Chief of Police Mizel Garcia, held a press conference on Friday evening to announce the beginning of enforcement of the ordinance.
Those found violating the ordinance may be immediately arrested and jailed. The city adopted the ordinance on Nov. 8. The ordinance is meant to restrict panhandling and outlines guidelines on where pedestrians are allowed to stand or sit, mostly in traffic zones.
Included in the ordinance are street vendors selling products.
Independent contractors who sell the Rio Grande Sun, mostly on Wednesdays when the paper has been printed, fall under the set of guidelines in the ordinance and at least one says he has already been harassed by police, including Chief Mizel Garcia.
The ordinance sets regulations regarding solicitation activities on public and private roadways and parking lots. It only applies to private properties if the owner consents.
Groups and individuals have already begun questioning if the ordinance is legal and whether or not it may violate the U. S. Constitution and specifically the First Amendment. Some of those groups have said they will consider suing the city. Reportedly the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is closely watching the situation.
Attempts to reach the ACLU at its Albuquerque office on Friday were unsuccessful.
Some say the ordinance unfairly targets the homeless in Española. Homelessness in the city, as in other cities, is a major problem and often blamed for increasing numbers of crimes, some violent.
Chief Garcia denied the accusation of targeting the homeless.
“My department is not here to criminalize (the) homeless. That’s the last thing we’re going to do, and I think I’ve passionately stated that before. We are not going to criminalize homeless. We are always not going to circumvent anybody’s civil rights, anybody's first amendment rights,” Garcia said.
This marks the third time the city has attempted to pass an ordinance restricting solicitation.
When asked if the city or police department is concerned about backlash, Garcia said it would be “presumptuous” for him to make any guesses.
Richard L. Connor, editor and publisher of the Rio Grande SUN, said the newspaper is concerned for the welfare of its independent contractors and their ability to sell newspapers. He said questions about potential violation of First Amendment rights are under review with attorneys.
“The Rio Grande Sun has been in business over 65 years and for most of that time a hallmark of this business has been our street vendors, independent contractors, hawking newspapers,” he said. “There are adults, many of them, who fondly recall selling this paper on the street as children.”
He said he finds it unfortunate that the city would want to disrupt the newspaper’s business and affect a valuable revenue stream.
Others were not so muted in their response to the threat to newspaper vendors.
“This ordinance violates the First Amendment by restricting distribution of news and information,” said Sammy Lopez, Executive Director of the New Mexico Press Association.
Here is how the First Amendment reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
If the ordinance is challenged in court, a lawsuit would likely reach the federal level and would be expensive for those suing and for the city to defend.
No arrests have been made thus far.
Española Mayor John Ramon Vigil said efforts this week have been for “educational outreach.” Police officers have been warning anyone violating the ordinance that if they are caught doing so as of Saturday, they will be arrested.
“The city of Española and my administration remains committed to public safety and … creating effective ordinances to enforce that and create a safe environment for our community,” Vigil said.
With residents concerned about violent crimes and drug sales in the city, Mizel was asked why the city appears to be focusing on panhandling.
“A violent crime is something that we are going to address immediately. There’s no priority system initially set up. We are going to address crime,” Garcia said. “It’s just like stopping a car. We stop vehicles – speeding vehicles – for a traffic violation … Same thing with this ordinance – it’ll follow the same procedure that we do now with traffic violations.”
One person who has a long history of selling the Rio Grande Sun has reported being harassed on and off for several weeks as he has tried selling the newspaper from the location he has used for years.
On Thursday, Leonel Andrade said he was selling papers on the median at Riverside Drive and Fairview Lane when he was approached by Chief Garcia. He said he was told he could not sell newspapers at that location.
Andrade reported that Chief Garcia told Andrade that he was driving to Walmart and that if Andrade was still selling at the location when Garcia drove past him again, Andrade would be arrested.
When asked about the incident, Garcia explained it differently.
“That’s a little comical – and I’ll tell you why,” he said.
According to Garcia, he was driving to a meeting when he saw Andrade nearly fall from the median. Garcia then engaged his emergency equipment and pulled up to Andrade before he “educated him” and informed Andrade the ordinance is in effect.
Garcia went on to explain that the focus this past week has been to educate the public and warn them that come Saturday, arrests will be made.
Garcia said that the Española Fire Department Chief and Assistant Chief had been driving behind him when the incident occurred, and - when Garcia drove away from Andrade, neither of them paused to speak to Andrade, which Garcia said proves that he spoke to Andrade in a normal tone.
“It’s very presumptuous to say harassment. I mean, that’s actually an offense to me. I didn’t even get out of my car. I rolled down my window, and I used very respectful language to him. I told him like I would tell anybody else,” Garcia said.
Connor said he finds nothing “comical” about reports of the incident.
“This is a serious issue for Española. The ordinance and its enforcement is likely to gain at least statewide attention. There is certain to be criticism and questions why the city appears to be focusing on this issue at this time when almost weekly murders are still being committed here,” he said.
He pointed out that in nearby Santa Fe, vendors for the New Mexican sometimes stand in the middle of busy streets selling newspapers.
“I doubt we have heard the last of the controversy this may start,” he said.