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Testimony Regarding the Proposed Amendments to Section 203 of the Saratoga Springs City Code

Testimony Regarding the Proposed Amendments to Section 203 of the Saratoga Springs City Code

The New York Civil Liberties Union (“NYCLU”) respectfully submits the following testimony regarding the proposed amendments to Section 203 of the Saratoga Springs city code. The NYCLU, the New York State affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, is a not-for-profit, nonpartisan organization with eight offices across the state and nearly 80,000 members and supporters. The NYCLU’s mission is to defend and promote the fundamental principles, rights, and constitutional values embodied in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of New York.

The proposed amendments to Section 203 are not an improvement over the June ordinance that prohibited sitting or lying on public sidewalks (§§ 203-21.4, 203-21.5, and 203-21.6). The amended proposal tweaks the law’s exceptions and penalties but makes no meaningful substantive changes to the version that passed in June. It is essentially the same law with the same purpose: to punish homelessness.

Saratoga Springs officials have claimed that the ordinance is not aimed at the city’s homeless population, but this is hard to believe, since the statute is written in the same spirit as anti-homeless laws passed in American cities including Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami and Boise, Idaho.

Such laws are part of an ugly national trend. They are band-aids enacted by municipalities that have failed to address the real problems of homelessness and inequality: cities that fail to provide spaces for people to get off the street during the day; to sleep safely at night; and to deal with such conditions as drug addiction, alcohol dependence, mental or physical disability, and domestic violence.

With this ordinance, Saratoga Springs seeks to punish those trying to survive in an expensive city. Furthermore, the idea of fining people who are already impoverished defies common sense—and it is unconstitutional.

The city’s claim that its ordinance does not target homeless people strains credulity. Picture, if you will, three people sitting on a Saratoga Springs sidewalk: one is a tourist’s six-year old daughter who is eating an ice cream cone; the second is a woman in $500 boots with a Prada handbag who is talking on her iPhone; the third is a disheveled man who carries all his belongings in a garbage bag.

Does anyone really doubt who of these three would be the most likely victim of this law?

There are those who may say that “criminalizing” is too harsh a word to use in relation to this ordinance. Yet it allows for incarceration for up to 15 days. When behavior can result in jail time, it has indeed been criminalized. And, individuals found to have violated this version of the law who are not sentenced to jail time could still be assessed a fine up to $250 daily, a harsh punishment for someone who cannot afford to pay rent.

The city has said it will use discretion in enforcing this ordinance. But when it comes to unconstitutional laws, “discretion” is not an option. This law should not be amended. It must be rescinded.


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