Baltimore Scrambles to Remove Criminal Penalties for Riders From Dockless Scooter Regs

The accidental criminal penalties in Baltimore's proposed scooter bill reveal the problems with the default criminalization of code violations.


Andrei Gabriel Stanescu/

Baltimore officials are scrambling to remove criminal penalties from a proposed city ordinance regulating dockless electric scooters that could see riders get as much as a month in jail and $1,000 in fines for everything from speeding to riding underage.

The bill in question was written by staff at the city's Department of Transportation (BCDOT) who've been working on permanent regulations for these vehicles—which can be rented right off the street via smartphone app—since they started popping up on city streets in 2018.

The bill would have allowed up to six providers and 14,000 dockless electric scooters in Charm City, a big increase over the 1,400 currently on city streets. It also came with a number of restrictions for riders.

These include a 15 mile per hour speed limit, and a requirement that riders be at least 16 years of age. Riders are also prohibited from using scooters on city sidewalks unless that sidewalk abuts a street with a speed limit of 30 miles per hour or more. In that case, sidewalk riding is permitted, but only at speeds of 6 miles per hour.

A section of the bill perscribes $20 fines for breaking these rules. However, the same legislation also included a catchall provision making any violation a misdemeanor offense with the possibility of the aforementioned jail time and fines.

That predictably drew the ire of the local American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who complained about both of the overcriminalization rider behavior and the overly complex nature of these rules.

"The more confusing the rules you're writing, the more opportunity for police intervention and the more potential for disparities in the ways the rules are enforced," David Rocah, an attorney with the Maryland ACLU, told The Baltimore Sun.

After the Sun broke the news of the criminal penalties, BCDOT officials assured the scooting public that their intention was never to jail riders. Rather, these penalties would be reserved for scooter companies who violated the law.

"For a criminal penalty to be imposed, a court would need to find that a violation of the law was so egregious that a criminal penalty is deserved. That situation was never expected to arise for a rider, but potentially might arise for a provider of a vehicle for hire," a BCDOT spokesperson told the Sun, saying that the proposed ordinance would be amended to remove the possibility of criminal sanctions for riders.

This backpedaling is welcome, but reveals an additional problem with the way local governments approach regulation: the default criminalization of any code violation. This hardly a problem unique to Baltimore, but is the case in many American cities.

This issue surfaced in Santa Barbara, California when that city went after straws with a bill that made the distribution of the plastic suckers a code violation, opening up the possibility for offenders to be hit a misdemeanor charge.

The uproar over that possibility saw the criminal penalties removed from the final straw bill, but not before the city officials argued that the criminal sanctions were worth keeping around for the worst offenders.

"We don't know whether we're going to be dealing with an innocent vendor who gives out one straw, or we're going to have Lime Bikes dumping 10,000 straws," said City Attorney Ariel Calonne in one city council meeting (the joke being that a straw provider could one day be as big a menace to public order as the electric scooter company).

The trouble with this logic is it doesn't specify which conduct would actually be deserving of criminal charges. Spelling out where exactly that line falls is important both for the companies and individuals that will have to follow the law. It's also important for voters who can't evaluate the fairness or proportionality of proposed penalties without knowing when they might be employed.

So long as Baltimore's scooter regulations make any violation a misdemeanor, even if it's just for scooter providers, that will continue to be a problem.