By Madelaine Church and Steven Gutierrez | Special to The OBSERVER
California had one of the nation’s strictest jaywalking laws – until now.
Assembly Bill 2147 – also known as Freedom to Walk – took effect Jan. 1; Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it Sept. 30. The bill prohibits law enforcement from stopping and citing pedestrians who are safely crossing the road even if they are jaywalking.
Jaywalking is the act of pedestrians walking on a road or street outside of a designated crosswalk or a walk signal. Crossing an empty street outside of a permitted crosswalk is considered jaywalking.
Under the new law, pedestrians will face a citation and possible fine only if they jaywalk when there is immediate danger of causing a motor vehicle crash. Drivers are required to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians crossing the roadway within any marked or unmarked crosswalk at an intersection.
Pedestrians will be liable if they suddenly leave a curb or any place of safety by walking or running into a path of an oncoming vehicle that is close or causes an immediate hazard.
Assemblymember Phil Ting of San Francisco introduced the legislation. He said he wanted more fairness in the criminal justice system.
“When I saw the statistical breakdown of who was getting jaywalking tickets in California, I was shocked,” Ting said in response to emailed questions. “Not only were people of color disproportionately impacted but some of the police encounters resulted in death or serious injury.”
The Black community has been deeply affected by jaywalking citations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Black residents make up 13% of Sacramento’s city population. Sacramento Police Department data on jaywalking citations between 2018 and 2019 shows that 32% of jaywalking citations were given to Black people.
Arden Way, Del Paso Boulevard, El Camino Avenue, and Empress Street in Sacramento are hotspots for jaywalking citations, police data show. Those intersections are in North Sacramento, which has a large Black population.
It’s not just Sacramento where Black people are more heavily cited. According to the California Bicycle Coalition, Black people are up to 4.3 times more likely to be stopped for jaywalking compared to White people in San Diego, and three times more likely to be stopped in Los Angeles County.
Many people view jaywalking as a pretense for racial profiling. There has been a history of law enforcement using violence against individuals cited for jaywalking. One such incident in Sacramento stands out after being made public a few years ago.
On April 10, 2017, Nandi Cain Jr. was attacked by a police officer in Del Paso Heights for jaywalking. The Sacramento Bee reported that he was on his way home from work and was stopped for walking illegally across Grand Avenue near Cypress Street. Cain questioned the reasonableness of the stop and attempted to walk away as the police officer ordered him to stop. Cain was punched 20 times, which left him with a broken nose and a concussion. The incident was caught on video by witnesses and went viral.
Many Sacramento residents were enraged. Cain sued Sacramento and received a $550,000 settlement approved by the Sacramento City Council a year later.
“Nandi Cain Jr. is one of many California examples that influenced me to move forward,” Ting wrote. “While discriminatory practices played a role in his jaywalking stop and subsequent beating, his case highlights another problem with jaywalking enforcement.”
Elisa Della-Piana, legal director for Lawyers Committee For Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, said the data on racial disparity in Sacramento’s jaywalking stops was significant.
“[Sacramento Superior Court] has been strict about the punishment around minor criminal citations, such as jaywalking.” Piana said. “People in Sacramento have faced worse consequences [for jaywalking] than any other counties in the state.”
Underresourced communities such as Del Paso Heights don’t have adequate infrastructure for pedestrians, Ting said. A lot of areas in Sacramento lack sidewalks, crosswalks, or pedestrian crosswalk buttons. This can confuse pedestrians where to cross legally.
Pedestrians can face up to a $250 fee for crossing the street outside of a designated crosswalk. That’s a high cost compared to parking tickets and other traffic citations; such citations are expensive and can be a financial burden to those already struggling. Ting said he felt reform was necessary.
The California State Sheriff’s Association opposed the legislation, citing pedestrian safety concerns. It drafted letters of opposition to committees and legislators.
Cory Salzillo, the association’s legislative director, spoke about the safety risks Californians can endure, emphasizing how these rules are necessary because not every pedestrian can predict when an oncoming vehicle presents a threat.
According to the California Office of Traffic Safety, 14,000 California pedestrians were injured and 893 were killed in 2018. California’s pedestrian fatality rate is almost 25% higher than the national average. The Sacramento Bee reported that California ranks as the ninth-deadliest state for pedestrians.
“The rules and laws that have been put into place are to protect the safety of those who use the roads,” Salzillo said.
“I’ve seen somebody get hit [while] jaywalking when [there were] no cars around,” said Sacramento pedestrian Jay Hudson. “Then that one speeding car hit him, then the next speeding car hit him again and he actually died. … Jaywalking’s never really good.”
According to KCRA, the following Sacramento intersections are hotspots for pedestrian fatalities:
- Stockton Boulevard and Fruitridge Road
- 65th Street and Fruitridge Road
- Broadway and Martin Luther King Boulevard
- Watt Avenue and Arden Way
- 47th Avenue and Franklin Boulevard
Some Sacramento pedestrians voiced their rejection of the law while others gave their approval.
“I don’t agree with that law,” Rebecca Moe said. “I think there has to be certain rules established when crossing the street.”
Moe said certain circumstances require people to jaywalk when there’s no light to safely help people cross the street, but emphasized that people need to jaywalk “in a safer manner and that it’s much safer to take the light.”
Sacramento resident Ricki Damico said people were going to jaywalk based on their own subjective reasons and that each person’s opinion on jaywalking “is going to be different in every situation.”
“I grew up in New York so I prefer to jaywalk to be honest with you,” Damico said. “Sometimes it’s a pain to walk to the corner and wait for the crosswalk, so I personally don’t see anything wrong with it.”
Sacramento State student Kaitlyn Vang said she grew up in Sacramento and sees jaywalking as pretty normal.
“I think as long as the person is being safe and not causing any collisions, I don’t think it’s a problem,” Vang said.
Many people feel confident of their prediction as to when to cross.
“As long as there’s no cars on the road then I’m walking. I don’t care what anybody says,” said Sacramento State student Jasmine Williams. “What are they going to do?”
Ting and his office proposed a version of this bill in 2021, titled Assembly Bill 1238. Newsom vetoed that bill over concerns about pedestrian safety and fatality rates. Newsom sourced the Statewide Integrated Traffic Report System, saying there had been an estimated 3,500 traffic fatalities during the previous five years and that approximately 30% of those were pedestrian fatalities.
Despite the veto, Newsom acknowledged the unequal enforcement of jaywalking laws, that the use of these offenses affects people of color, and the urgency to attend to the needs of under-resourced communities.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced by Sac State journalism students led by professor Phillip Reese.