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Vendors on Boardwalk Win Court Round

May 18, 1995|TOM JENNINGS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On the Venice boardwalk, the Tarot card readers will tell fortunes, the hair wrappers will weave their creations and the militant vegetarians will decry the dangers of burgers.

For now.

A recent city crackdown on boardwalk denizens who sell their wares or ask for donations has been halted in U.S. District Court, under a temporary restraining order issued last week. Both sides will be back in court June 13, when the boardwalk vendors will ask for a preliminary injunction to stop any city action until the issue goes to trial.

"We're going to ask for damages for everyone who was harassed," said James Fosbinder, the attorney representing the vendors. "Either the city can settle or they can go to trial."

Fosbinder said he represents about 35 people who were "contacted or threatened by the police" about doing business on the boardwalk.

His clients claim they have a First Amendment right to practice their business. In their request for a restraining order, they asked that the city be ordered to stop "interfering with First Amendment rights of U.S. citizens engaged in religious, political, philosophical, ideological, musical, healing or artistic activities to solicit and collect donations on the Venice boardwalk and to sell articles inextricably intertwined with those rights."

City officials said they began enforcing city codes that prohibit people from selling goods and services on the boardwalk without a permit because of complaints from shop owners on the boardwalk who say the vending diminishes their business.

Byron Boechkman, an assistant city attorney handling the case, said the city believes it is within its rights to quash some of the sales.

"We believe there are some very commercial activities going on down there," Boechkman said. "We're not against anybody exercising their rights to free speech. But we do not agree that just because you put something under the guise of free speech that it's not a commercial activity.

"Wrapping a chorizo in a napkin and saying it's from the church of whatever does not constitute a First Amendment activity," he said.

But Fosbinder said the Los Angeles police have gone too far in their efforts to shut down vendors who violate city code.

"The police knew darn well that the city attorney's office wasn't enforcing these tickets, so they threatened my clients with going to jail," Fosbinder said. "If the police pick you up on a Friday night, it's tough to get released before Monday, even if you have bail money."

Fosbinder said none of his clients were ever arrested, however, because most of them stopped coming to the boardwalk out of fear.

Jerry Rubin, who runs the peace group Alliance for Survival and who has been an outspoken critic of city policies on the boardwalk, said the city should worry about more important problems on the coastal promenade.

"We're disappointed we had to go to this extreme," Rubin said. "There is enough crime on the boardwalk that we feel the police are wasting their time ticketing us."

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