Guide to California Laws About Public Spaces, Parks, Streets & Sidewalks

Although our public spaces are for all of us, the public, that does not mean we get to do whatever we want around these spaces. Here’s what you need to know.

Be sure to also check out our Guides to Laws about Public Spaces in the Los Angeles area and San Francisco area.

1. Being on the sidewalk or street

Can the police tell me to get off the sidewalk?

As long as you are not blocking the flow of traffic, you have the right to be on a public sidewalk or to peacefully gather with others on public sidewalks, and police and the government may not unreasonably restrict this right. This is based on the freedom of assembly in the 1st amendment to the U.S. Constitution.1U.S. Constitution, 1st Amendment; Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536, 554 (1965); Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U.S. 474, 480 (1988)

Of course, this means that the government may impose some reasonable restrictions on the ability of people to be present on the sidewalk.

See other laws for pedestrians: Guide to the Law for Pedestrians in California

Is it illegal to block the sidewalk?

Yes. In California, it is illegal to intentionally block the free movement of another person on a street, sidewalk or other public place.2Cal Penal Code 647c

Is it legal to just start marching or protesting in the street?

If you want to march, protest, or assemble on public roads, you will need to apply for a special permit with the city. See our Guide to Protesters Rights, and check out our Guide to Free Speech.

What is loitering? Is it illegal?

Loitering means hanging around with no apparent purpose, and is not by itself illegal unless prohibited in specific places. However, loitering or “lying in wait” with the intent to commit some crime is a crime in itself.3Cal Penal Code 647

It is also illegal to loiter at a public bathroom with the intent to have sex with someone, even if consensual4CA Penal Code Sec 647(d)

Do I have to carry ID at all times or show it to police?

Not necessarily. See our Guide to Police Conduct.

Is it illegal to ride a bike on the sidewalk?

See our Guide to Laws for Cyclists in California.

2. Disturbing the peace & “nuisance”

What is “disturbance of the peace” or “breach of the peace”?

The specific law of “disturbing the peace” includes any of the following:5Penal Code 415

  1. Unlawfully fighting, or challenging another person to fight, in a public place
  2. Disturbing another person by loud and unreasonable noise, if this is done willfully and maliciously, and
  3. Using offensive words in a public place, if the words are likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction.

Penalty: Up to 90 days in county jail and/or up to $400 fine.

But there are also the crimes of disturbing or breaking up a meeting,6Penal Code 403 participating in unlawful assembly,7Penal Code 406-408 and rioting.8Penal Code 404 & 405 The first two are punishable by up to 6 months in jail and/or up to $1000 fine, and rioting carries a penalty of up to 1 year in jail and/or up to $1000 fine.

What is a nuisance?

Nuisance is any disturbance which can harm the health or comfort of others, or is “indecent or offensive to the senses,” or any interference with the use of property or public space.9Civil Code 3479

This can include

  • smoke, noise, odor, vibrations, etc. 10Oliver v. AT&T Wireless Services (1999) 76Cal.App.4th 521
  • the illegal sale of drugs11Civil Code 3479
  • obstructing the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property12Civil Code 3479
  • obstructing the free passage or use, of any navigable lake, or river, bay, stream, canal, or basin, or any public park, square, street, or highway.13Civil Code 3479

See more about noise at our Guide to Laws About Noise.

What is the penalty for nuisance?

It varies by the specific acts, but generally it is up to 6 months in jail and/or $1000 fine.14California Penal Code 19

3. Street vendors

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Is street vending illegal in California?

As of Jan 1, 2019 it is NOT a crime to sell food or merchandise on the sidewalk, however those who do so can still be cited and fined as a civil violation or infraction (except in cities that pass laws to allow it).15Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, SB 946

4. Drinking in public

Is it illegal to drink alcohol in public?

Laws vary by city, but most cities do NOT allow you to drink alcohol in public, including the city of Los Angeles.16LAMC Ch IV Sec 41.27(c) But in most cities, including LA, if the drink has less than 0.5% alcohol (such as some kinds of Kombucha drinks), it is not legally considered alcohol and is OK to drink in public.17LAMC Ch IV §41.27(c)

Is it illegal to be drunk in public?

Yes, in California you may not be so drunk (or high on drugs) that you are unable to exercise care for your own or others’ safety. It is also illegal to be so drunk that you are blocking or preventing the use of the sidewalk or public street. This is called public intoxication.18Cal Penal Code Sec 647(f)

Is it illegal to simply carry alcohol in public?

It varies by city. See more at our Guide to Laws About Alcohol

5. Peeing or pooping in public or on public property

Is it illegal to pee or poop in public or on public property in California?

Yes. In California it is generally considered “disorderly conduct” to urinate or defecate in public.19California Penal Code 647 However, there is no specific statewide “public pooping” or “pubic urination” law.

But many cities do have a law specifically prohibiting human waste in public.

Related Pages

Guide to the Law for Protesters

Guide to Police Conduct

Guide to the Law for Pedestrians in California

References[+]

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