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Legal team steps in for street vendor facing hundreds in fines

Time after time, the police officer wheeled up on his bicycle and handed Rosa Calderon a ticket.

And time after time, the 79-year-old woman came back, rolling her little cart behind her.

Calderon hawks bottles of water and sodas, sometimes batteries and filmy Christmas ornaments, between 5th and 6th streets downtown. In roughly a month and a half, she had racked up seven tickets for flouting Municipal Code Section 42.00(b) — the ban on selling goods on city sidewalks.

Each of them could mean hundreds of dollars in fines, plus a heap of court fees, for a woman who estimated she earned about $15 a day.

"I've been selling here for nine years," the Salvadoran immigrant said in Spanish one afternoon on Los Angeles Street, her hair snowy white around the temples, a freshly issued ticket folded in her hand.

She said that years earlier, "the street was full of vendors, and they said nothing."

The tickets had landed her in the Metropolitan Courthouse on a gray Friday morning earlier in the year. Before Calderon walked into the courtroom, she asked God to help her. But she brought a legal team for backup — including a civil rights attorney, a crew of earnest law students and their professor, all clad in conservative suits, ready to pitch every legal argument they could at this seemingly routine case.

The UCLA law students, who had been certified to represent Calderon under the supervision of their professor, Ingrid V. Eagly, were conferring in hushed tones in the back of the courtroom as they waited for the judge.

Calderon curled and uncurled her fingers, glancing around to see whether the police officer she knew so well had arrived. The last time she had to pay a ticket, Calderon said, there was little money left to eat or pay rent. She shares an apartment in South Los Angeles with friend and roommate Bertha Arce, a fellow street vendor who accompanied her to court.

"What kind of work can a woman of 80 years do?" Arce said later, pushing her own cart full of ice creams down Los Angeles Street. "Nothing."

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The tickets amount to an occupational hazard for the throngs of sidewalk sellers who shill fresh orange juice, hot dogs wrapped in bacon, used clothing, toys and a laundry list of other goods in bustling stretches of downtown and MacArthur Park. The police come. The sellers scatter. Those unable to escape get citations.

But, like Calderon, many simply come back.

"It's such a waste of time," said attorney Cynthia Anderson-Barker, who runs a National Lawyers Guild legal clinic and helped represent Calderon on the case. During court hearings, "these officers are taking time off their work day. They're spending hours — if they're doing it right — documenting the things they're confiscating."

Far easier, Anderson-Barker argued, to simply legalize street vending.

She called the legal battle for Calderon a kind of "pushback" to show that properly enforcing the law is so onerous that police should support legalization. She's gotten help from Eagly, the UCLA professor, who has enlisted students to represent defendants as part of a hands-on course in criminal defense.

Several Los Angeles lawmakers representing poorer stretches of the city argue that the throngs of vendors should be regulated as business operators, not cited as criminals. Other cities, including New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, offer street vendors an opportunity to be licensed and operate legally, according to a city review last year. But the idea has alarmed some businesses and neighborhood groups that fear legalization would worsen trash, clog sidewalks and put brick-and-mortar businesses at a disadvantage.

Many have questioned how a city that struggles to keep its streets cleaned, its trees trimmed and its sidewalks smooth can possibly expect to enforce any new rules governing where or how street vendors can operate, such as limiting the hours they do business or requiring them to get county public health permits if they sell food.

"You can create all the regulations you want," said Kent Smith, executive director of the L.A. Fashion District Business Improvement District. "But the reality is unless there's someone there to enforce it, it's not going to happen."

As the debate plays out inside City Hall, police have continued to ticket street vendors like Calderon. Los Angeles police made more than 1,200 arrests for sidewalk vending the year before last, according to a city report.

"Nobody wants to take away Ms. Calderon's ability to feed her family," LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith said. "But we also have a responsibility to the business community. If we allow some street vending to start, pretty soon it's not just the guy with the hot dog cart, it's the lady with the Christmas ornaments, the guy with the pirated DVDs. It gets out of hand very quickly."

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At the Metropolitan Courthouse, Officer Alfonso Flores laid out his case against Calderon: On a November afternoon, he saw her selling on the sidewalks of Los Angeles Street. Business owners and residents had complained about her setting up shop with her cart, Flores said.

Law student Kevin Whitfield began to question him: Had he seen Calderon taking cash? Had he seen her hand goods to someone?

Flores said no. But he said that Calderon had admitted her guilt and that he had asked her in Spanish why she was selling there when he had warned her so many times not to do so.

Flores went on to say that sidewalk vending had brought a host of ills to the area: trash, blocked sidewalks that people with wheelchairs couldn't navigate, gang members who extorted the vendors. People who lived and worked there were afraid, he said.

In the courtroom, law student Greg Bonett argued that the prosecution had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Calderon was selling goods, nor that Christmas ornaments were prohibited: City rules allow for sidewalk sales of pamphlets, paintings and other items that are expressive or "inherently communicative" to comply with the 1st Amendment, he pointed out.

Judge Keith Borjon seemed skeptical as Bonett raised one argument after another. In the end, however, Calderon was sentenced for only one ticket. Three cases were swiftly dismissed because the officers had not been subpoenaed for them, and the judge dismissed two more "in the interests of justice." Another had already been dismissed at arraignment.

Outside the courtroom, Calderon cast her gaze around in confusion before someone translated into Spanish what had happened. Slowly her face crinkled into a smile as she learned that all but one of the tickets had been dismissed.

The judge sentenced her to a $50 fine, plus court fees — a penalty that ended up totaling more than $300. Her attorneys, who said that would equal 38 hours of community service, decided to appeal the remaining ticket.

Still, Calderon was pleased that so many of her tickets had been wiped away.Soon she would venture back to the streets, pushing her little cart in front of her.

And soon she would be holding yet another citation from Flores, her cart confiscated by the police.

On a bright, busy Sunday on Los Angeles Street, between the throng of shoppers searching for blinged-out smartphone cases and disposable fashions, fellow vendors gathered around Calderon, murmuring among themselves and trying to reassure her.

Anderson-Barker, who arrived after Calderon was cited, was indignant as she read the blue slip of paper.

"I'm sorry, Rosa," the attorney said in Spanish. "I'm sorry. This is what we're fighting for."

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesEmily for breaking news from Los Angeles City Hall.

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