Second Ward, Minneapolis

This is the public policy forum of Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and his staff. We use this space to talk about some of what Cam’s working on, explain his positions, and share a little of what life in City Hall is like. Please feel free to comment on posts, within certain ground rules. See our disclaimer, including ground rules, here:

Friday, March 20, 2015

On De-Criminalizing Spitting

This morning Council Member Blong Yang and I gave formal notice of our intention to bring to the City Council a motion to repeal two of the city’s ordinances that criminalize some instances of spitting and lurking.  I plan to write more about lurking later, and to address the city’s “spitting ordinance:” here.  

The basic ordinance we use today was passed in 1898. It was amended slightly in 1904 and perhaps later.  It apparently was used around the turn of the century.  According to records I found from the day, arrests went from about 200 arrests were made in 1904 to 21 in 1908 and back to 1 in 1909, although one source indicated there were as many as 400 arrests in 1909.  It is clear from reading the news and the Council proceedings from the time period that the passage of this ordinance was intended to help prevent the spread of Tuberculosis (TB) in a time when the use of chewing/spitting tobacco was common in Minneapolis, much more common that it is today. While today we know that TB is an air born disease spread when infectious people sneeze, cough, talk or spit, there was less certainty then.  Additionally, it appears use of chewing and spitting tobacco was seen as a nuisance. In 1904 passage of another related ordinance made tuberculosis reportable.  In 1909 in Minneapolis there were 356 deaths and 434 living cases of Tuberculosis reported. (from ATuberculosis Directory: Containing a List of Institutions, Associations andOther Agencies Dealing with Tuberculosis in the United States and Canada, NationalAssociation for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis, 1911)

It appears that arrests for spitting and depositing tobacco feel off quickly. Only a few years after the height of the tuberculosis epidemic in Minneapolis, in 1913, there were only 2 spitting violations reported of over 12,000 violations of all city ordinances reported that year.  One hundred years late, in 2013, as far as I can tell so far, there was only one citation given and in 2014 there were none. 

That said, I have heard individual reports of people being stopped for spitting.  Some of the attention to this ordinance comes from reports that it is sometimes used by police to initiate enforcement actions against people, and that those interactions are often with people of color.

Here is the specific language, which appears to allow spitting in some places (yards, ball fields, parkland, boulevards and even in the street itself) but prohibits spitting in most indoor public places and on sidewalks:

“213.30. - Spitting; depositing tobacco.

No person shall spit or expectorate or deposit or place any sputum, spittle, saliva, phlegm, mucus, tobacco juice, cigarette stumps, cigar stumps or quids of tobacco upon the floor, walls or stairway or any part of any public hall or building, depot, market, theater, church or place of public amusement; or upon, into or through any grating, area or stairway; or upon any sidewalk of any public street; or upon the floor, furnishings or equipment of any motor bus while it is in use upon the streets of the city. “

To my way of thinking this falls into a category of behaviors that would best be described as “things people probably shouldn't do, but shouldn't necessarily be a crime.”  There are lots of behaviors that are not particularly polite, and can spread disease.  For example, not covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough, and not washing your hands afterwards.  Those behaviors are most likely significantly more likely to spread disease, but they are not against the law in Minneapolis.  Spitting and depositing tobacco waste certainly are unsanitary and potentially offensive, but I am convinced that they no longer rise to the level of requiring an ordinance or the use of police and court resources to manage and regulate, even if they did in 1898 and in 1904.  Public awareness and education are better approaches.