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
“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.