Of food trucks and lawbreaking

It’s no secret that the U.S. economy continues to struggle, particularly on the jobs front.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that lots of people are getting in touch with their inner entrepreneur and are seeking employment via their own small businesses.  Food trucks, although looked down on by some, clearly are a part of this self-starter trend, particularly in certain urban areas like Portland and New York.

Which is why I found a recent NPR Planet Money podcast on food trucks in NYC so interesting. From the transcript:

[T]he city sets lots of rules about where food trucks are not allowed — then lets the truck owners duke it out over the scraps.

You have to be 20 feet away from subway stations and building entrances. Two hundred feet from schools (call it the ice-cream truck provision). And the NYPD just started giving out tickets for selling food from metered parking spots.

“Following all the regulatory constraints that are currently enforced at this moment, there really is not any place for a food truck to park,” says David Weber [author of the Food Truck Handbook].

In other words, NYC on one hand licenses an activity (vending from food trucks) and on the other hand makes this activity illegal (through parking regulations that provide literally no legal spots from which to vend).  Of course, what this really means is (1) that food trucks continue to operate but (2) that they do so in technical violation of the law and subject to the whims of law enforcement’s discretion.

As a lawyer, this infuriates me.  It undermines the rule of law in a number of ways:

  • It tells citizens that one has to break the law simply in order to run a business.
  • It implies that there are two classes of law (laws one must obey and laws one need not) without providing a clear principle on which is which.
  • It institutionalizes an incentive for corruption and discrimination since every food truck operator is now a technical lawbreaker subject to law enforcement’s “discretion” (and thus harassment, solicitation for bribes, etc.).

To be clear:  I do not know whether any corruption or discrimination is taking place, and I am not accusing anyone of anything.  (Indeed, I have no direct knowledge of the situation on the ground and do not live in NYC.)  Taking David’s assertion at face value, however, it is clear that such facts would incentivize corruption and discrimination at the institutional level.

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