Pushcart War

Permission to compete


Street vendor Gary Franco had been selling fresh fruits and vegetables to the people of San Juan County, Washington, for three decades without trouble. Things changed in 2009, when the San Juan County Council adopted a new ordinance requiring vendors to apply for a permit, pay a daily fee of $50, and receive the "written consent of all business owners within 25 feet of the application site."

In other words, the ordinance requires vendors to get permission from their competitors. Since Franco's strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries are often much cheaper than those at local grocery stores, such permission may be hard to come by. But Franco doesn't have much choice. Failure to comply triggers a penalty of $250 per hour.

In September, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, filed a suit arguing that the ordinance violates the Washington State Constitution's Privileges or Immunities Clause: "No law shall be passed granting to any citizen, class of citizens, or corporation other than municipal, privileges or immunities which upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens, or corporations." Although the ordinance was billed as a measure "to protect the public health, safety and welfare," the institute's attorneys note, it exempts ice cream trucks, farmers' markets, charitable organizations, and other favored groups.