Los Angeles City Council voted 11-3 Tuesday in favor of a new law that would target people who sell and repair used bikes in public without a permit. The ordinance targets bicycle thieves who live outside and critics say it unfairly targets homeless people.
Bicycle “chop shops” are relatively common in Portland. We’ve reported on Portland Police Bureau investigations in the past where known criminals were stripping down stolen bikes into stacks of separate parts in order to profit off the sale of the bikes and/or to anonymize the bikes and prevent them from being recovered by theft victims or police.
But there’s a wide spectrum of bicycle activity in homeless camps. Many people who live on the street rely on bikes to get around. And just like people with houses and garages, they have a right to own more than one bike, to fix them, and to sell them to other people. There’s also the right to remain innocent until proven guilty, which is one reason I didn’t refer to a camp on SE Alder Street as a ‘chop shop’ in a story last month.
When we reported on how tricky this issue is for Portland Police Bureau officers to navigate back in 2013, Sergeant Brian Hughes said, “Just because they’re living outside and have a lot of bikes, doesn’t mean they’re bike thieves. They’re entitled to work on a bike just as much as anyone anywhere else.”
L.A. City Council added language to their ordinance to make sure the law doesn’t catch innocent people, but laws enforced by police against vulnerable people have a way of being abused and unfairly implemented. It’s also worth noting that L.A.’s effort is championed by a politician who ran for office on a platform of removing homeless encampments from public places.
Here’s the salient text of the ordinance:
Except as otherwise stated in this section, no person shall assemble, disassemble, sell, offered to sell distribute, offered to distribute or store the following items on public property within the city:
• Five or more bicycle parts
• A bicycle frame with the gear cables or brake cables cut
• Two or more bicycles with missing bicycle parts; or three or more bicycles.
The prohibitions shall not apply to:
• A person operating under a valid city business license or permit authorizing such activities.
• A person in possession of a single bicycle, which is being repaired as a result of malfunction or damage that occurred while a person rode the bicycle on public property. The sole purpose of the repair shall be to restore the bicycle to its operational form and enable the person to resume riding the bicycle.
In a detailed story about the ordinance and its local political and policy context, Streetsblog LA reporter Sarah Sulaiman wrote, “It remains to be seen what enforcement of the ordinance will look like in practice.”
It also remains to be seen if Portland City Council would ever attempt something like this. Given the politics around homelessness and cycling here, I doubt we’d ever see an attempt at a similar law. But these days it’s not a good idea to predict anything when it comes to complicated issues.