Obstruction Ordinance

In February, 2017, Fort Collins’ City Management proposed a Sit-Lie Ban that would have made it illegal to sit, kneel, or lie down in large areas of downtown. The ACLU of Colorado called it “one of the most outrageous, cruel and absurd examples that we have seen yet of a proposed ordinance clearly targeting unhoused persons.” Hundreds of people turned out against this proposal, with hundreds more writing letters of protest: this ordinance did not reflect the values of our community. City Council listened to us, and did not pass the Sit-Lie Ban.

Following the defeat of the Sit-Lie Ban, Council directed City Staff to revise the City’s existing Obstruction Ordinance (Municipal Code Sec. 17-128) to “make it more enforceable” so that police could have more control over sitting, lying, and kneeling downtown. In August, 2017, the City adopted a re-written Obstruction Ordinance, despite significant concerns from FCHC and concerned community members.

An overview of FCHC concerns

Obstruction Ordinance Give Police Too Much Power

Everyone probably agrees that blocking a sidewalk counts as obstruction. However, the Obstruction Ordinance also defines obstruction this way: “sitting, kneeling, or lying within twenty (20) feet of the entrance to any business establishment during the business hours of that establishment, whether or not a particular person’s passageway has, in fact, been impeded.”

This creates a definition for “obstruction” that includes behavior that does not actually obstruct anyone’s passage, and is not likely to cause any actual obstruction. That’s unnecessary, and potentially very harmful.

The broader an ordinance is, the more vulnerable it is to abuse. We already know that people experiencing homelessness in Fort Collins receive an extraordinary amount of police scrutiny, and receive tickets for petty municipal offenses at a VASTLY higher rate than persons with access to housing. These tickets cause substantial personal hardship, and are hurting our community. We need to address this problem, not add to it.

Is “Obstruction” the New “Sit/Lie?”

A vast amount of downtown Fort Collins lies within 20 feet of the entrance to a business. Banning sitting, kneeling, or lying in those areas amounts to a sit-lie ban throughout a significant portion of the downtown area. Fort Collins has already said NO to a sit-lie Ban!
The Obstruction Ordinance already makes it illegal to block a doorway, a sidewalk, and all kinds of other features downtown. That is enough. We do not also need to make it illegal simply to exist within 20 feet of the entrance to a business.

Every human being needs rest. If you have access to housing, you probably have a place to sit, kneel, or lie down — on your couch, or on the floor — without fear. If you are a person without housing, you also have places to sit, kneel, rest, and lie down — public spaces, where everyone should be welcome. Laws that make sitting and lying down into crimes target the most vulnerable members of our community. We should be eliminating these laws, not expanding them.

Moreover, people have the right to exist within 20 feet of the entrance to a business.

City Council Ignored FCHC Concerns

The point of revising an ordinance is to make it better. City Council had an opportunity to make sure that their Obstruction Ordinance is well-written, and that it took aim only at behavior that really does have some reasonable relationship to blocking sidewalks, or making it harder to get around downtown.

FCHC and our allies asked that the 20 ft. limit be shortened, or eliminated entirely from this ordinance. It is nearly impossible to obstruct the entrance to a business from 20 ft. away. This distance is far too great, and gives police far too much power to decide who is, and is not, welcome in our public spaces.

We also asked that the language “whether or not any person’s passage has in fact been impeded” should be removed from this ordinance. It is absurd to broaden an obstruction ordinance to include conduct that does not cause an obstruction!

City Council ignored all these suggestions when passing their ordinance.

What Does Ticketing Data Tell Us?

Each year, FCHC collects publicly available data from the Fort Collins Police Services about how many tickets are being given under several municipal ordinances. Information on ticketing trends, as well as the text of the obstruction ordinance, can be found in the following pdf:

Obstruction ordinance data and text (2013-2017)

Please note: ticketing data does not tell us how often people are contacted by police under an ordinance, instructed to change their behavior (even if they were not behaving illegally), or otherwise pushed out of public spaces, without a ticket being written. While police often regard contact as a neutral/benign action, people being contacted do not always experience it this way. In fact, being repeatedly singled out for police attention, contact, questioning, and control is often intimidating, oppressive, marginalizing, and can make a person less likely to trust the police or report concerning/dangerous/criminal behavior to them.

Associated articles and reporting

“Back Door” for Sit-Lie Ban in Fort Collins Moving Forward (The Rocky Mountain Collegian, July 19, 2017)

Fort Collins wants to keep downtown sidewalks clear  (The Coloradoan, August 15, 2017)

Fort Collins backs rules against blocking sidewalks (The Coloradoan, August 16, 2017)

Obstruction Ordinance Talking Points (Fort Collins Homeless Coalition document, 2017)