Guide to Laws About Activities on Public Streets, Sidewalks, Parks, and Other Public Spaces in San Francisco

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 may not unreasonably restrict this right.1U.S. Constitution, 1st AmendmentCox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536, 554 (1965); Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U.S. 474, 480 (1988)

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 It is also a violation of the laws of San Francisco, with a penalty of $50-$500; additional violations can even result in jail time.3SF Police Code Sec 22, 23

Is it illegal to play in the streets?

It is illegal to “play any game of ball” in San Francisco.4SF Police Code Sec 110

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.

Also 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, in California, loitering or “lying in wait” with the intent to commit some crime is a crime in itself.5Cal Penal Code 647

It is also illegal to loiter in a public bathroom with the intent to have sex with someone, even if consensual6CA Penal Code Sec 647(d)

In the city of San Francisco, loitering is prohibited:

  • outside a nightclub during operating hours;7SF Police Code 121
  • outside an automatic public toilet;8SF Police Code 124.2

Do I have to carry ID at all times?

In California you are not required to show your ID (identification) or drivers license or to carry it with you (unless you are driving of course). Even if a police officer asks for your ID, you do not need to show it. The officer cannot arrest you simply for refusing.9California’s prior “stop and identify” law, Penal Code §647(e) was construed by a court in People v. Solomon (1973) to require “credible and reliable” identification that carries a “reasonable assurance” of its authenticity. Using this construction, the U.S. Supreme Court held the law to be void for vagueness in Kolender v. Lawson461 U.S. 352 (1983)

But it’s generally a good idea to comply with reasonable police officer requests, which can avoid further problems.

Also, if you are being cited for a misdemeanor offense, you ARE required to show ID at that time, otherwise you could be taken into custody.

2. Stuff on the street or sidewalk

Is it illegal to leave things in the street?

You also may not leave any trash or waste in a public area or street, as this is considered littering or “illegal dumping.”10California Penal Code Sec 374.3; SF Health Code Sec 33

3. 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:11Penal 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,12Penal Code 403 participating in unlawful assembly,13Penal Code 406-408 and rioting.14Penal 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.15Civil Code 3479

This can include

  • smoke, noise, odor, vibrations, etc. 16Oliver v. AT&T Wireless Services (1999) 76Cal.App.4th 521
  • the illegal sale of drugs17Civil Code 3479
  • obstructing the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property18Civil 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.19Civil 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.20Penal Code 19

Is it illegal to urinate or defecate (pee or poop) in public in San Francisco?

Yes, it is illegal to “deposit” any human urine or feces on any public street or property, or private property without consent of the owner.21San Francisco Police Code Sec 153 The penalty is an infraction with a fine of between $50-$500.

Is it illegal to be nude in public in San Francisco?

Generally yes, see our Guide to Laws about Sex.

4. Street Vending and Food Trucks

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).22Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, SB 946

Where can food trucks park?

See our Guide to Parking Laws.

5. Drinking in public

Is it illegal to drink or carry alcohol in public?

See our Guide to Laws about Alcohol in SF.

6. Posting flyers and signs

Is it legal to post flyers, signs, posters, or other things on public property?

Yes, it is legal, as long as you follow these rules:

Signs are defined as any card, decoration, poster, campaign sign, or any object containing or bearing writing that is affixed, posted or fastened to a utility or light pole that is permanently attached to the street or sidewalk. In 2007, an ordinance was passed that restricts the posting of signs on city property.  The requirement was established to reduce litter and blight and minimize obstruction to ensure safety.

The public may post signs and information on some utility poles and lamp posts if the postings follow regulations outlined in Article 5.6 of the San Francisco Public Works Code:

Signs must:

  • not be larger than 8 1/2“ x 11”
  • conform to the shape of the pole
  • be attached with tape or other non-adhesive material such as twine, string or other non-metal banding material
  • be placed less than 12 feet from the ground
  • indicate date of posting and be removed by the poster within 10 days after an event or election date.

All signs continue to be prohibited on historic street light/lamp poles and on all traffic signal poles. The Department of Public Works may remove prohibited signs and administer penalties of $100 to $500. Call 3-1-1 to report illegally posted signs. For more information and a list of historic street light/lamp poles, please visit www.sfdpw.org.

Related Pages

Police Conduct

Alcohol

See all Legal Guides

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