The Law Underfoot

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The last mile of legal information is where law libraries can have the most impact. We can patch the gap between free-to-access information and actually helping people find and stitch together the information they need. Our ability to help people navigate the information – to understand it, rather than just browse and search it – is our strength. And local laws are the last 100 feet. If you walk around San Diego, the law is literally cited under your feet. Then what?

It is often the small print on signs. And perhaps this is not common in every city or town. I don’t remember seeing it before. But as you walk around the city here, you see a bunch of warnings and, with them, citations to local municipal codes.

Where Am I?

One challenge is to know whose jurisdiction you’re in. In some areas, it’s crystal clear. In others, not so much. I remember the confusion I had when I first started working at a law library in Cincinnati, Ohio. Some of the funding was initiated by state police and some by municipal police. So it mattered if you were arrested on the highway going through a city or if you were arrested on the city road crossing the highway. If you’re getting a ticket, you probably don’t care. But it matter for how funding is disbursed.

If you’re in San Diego, there are loads of state security services enforcing laws. Even this map, below, doesn’t capture all of them. In particular, as you walk along the San Diego Bay, you’re in the jurisdiction of the Harbor Police, which is not shown.

Map of San Diego County with state security service jurisdictions marked off with borders
A map of San Diego County’s western side, showing the boundaries of state security services’ jurisdictions

Jurisdiction is important. Get arrested? File a criminal complaint against someone or have one filed against you and need a copy? It may be a piece of paper in some office that isn’t near you. We had someone come in to our law library who needed a police report but it was from a town south of us. The only way to get it was a 30+ minute trolley ride during their operating hours.

A couple of us were touring another institution that had partnered with the San Diego state security services. The goal was to create a central location where someone in need could get social and legal help. But even in that partnership, unless the police report had been generated by that unit, they couldn’t assist someone in getting a report from another jurisdiction.

Does the person issuing the citation to you have the authority to do it? How do you know? What do you do if they aren’t? The start of a legal issue is full information needs.

Under a Bushel Basket

It was the Port District’s jurisdiction I was in, as I wandered east towards downtown San Diego. I didn’t know it at the time, but with a bit of research, I could figure it out. It was late and I was alone but I’m sure it is busy during daytime hours. The warning I came across was painted on the sidewalk, meant to give pedestrians an edge:

A sidewalk painted to say No bicycling, skateboarding, or roller skating with a citation to the SDUPD Code section 8.02

As far as knowing the law, this is pretty good. Is the citation Bluebook? No, but citation formats are just to make things findable, not to be prissy. It was easy enough for me to do a web search for “SDUPD Code” and come up with … something.

The good news first: the code is hyper findable, and the first search entry on both Google and Bing takes you to the San Diego Unified Port District Code. Not as great: they have posted a lot of their information like a blog, so there is some sort of order but it is not going to get you to the code without navigating through a couple of pages of unordered posts.

There is a table of contents link to a PDF at the top but that’s literally all it is, a table of contents. I thought that perhaps they’d hyperlinked the sections to the discrete PDFs for each section. Nope. It’s just a 10 page flat PDF document.

I’ve commented here about how frustrating I find a lot of presentation of legal information. Statutes that are delivered without showing hierarchy, lack of hyperlinks, that sort of thing. I don’t think putting things in a big jumbled pile is a great way to present legal information that exists in a hierarchy.

I have often wondered whether citations issued by state security are designed to be paid and so information access friction is a benefit. How much effort do you put in to fight a $40 ticket with no other repercussions? A $250 speeding ticket with points? What is revenue generation, or quota, and how does the lack of easy access to information on how to dispute it factor in to compliance?

Especially because they have a unified document that is 493 pages and puts all of the sections in order. I don’t remember how I first found it. I couldn’t even discover it using the site: delimiter against the storage site (pantheonstorage.blob.windows.net) and not against the official departmental web site. In the end, I futzed the URL for the table of contents, removing “table-of-contents” and the full document came up.

Who cares? They published §8.02, which is the section that you needed. Job done. What about definitions? What about understanding the jurisdiction? What about understanding the code’s validity (§0.10) or police authority (§0.07)? A code section may not be a free-standing piece of law, but may rely on other sections. If someone has a legal issue, knowing what those say may be important.

At least I knew what the applicable law was. The problem with citations is that they may not tell you much. I saw one that said Penal Code. Now, I work in a law library and so it made sense to search for a California penal code, since I assumed that was a state law. But that’s not always obvious. And what if you don’t know what text the numbered section is in?

A sign that says “Damage to Trees, Shrubs or Plants Prohibited” and then an obscured code section including §8.02(B)(6)

Or what a “muni” is? or what per means in this instance, which means “but” in Spanish?

Photo that says “Motorized vehicles prohibited on MLK Promenade per San Diego Muni Code”

Or maybe that MTS is the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, the local transportation agency, which also has its own ordinances. And what part of the Penal Code? Loitering?

A sign on a San Diego Trolley platform that says “you must have a valid ticket or pass, or be in the process of purchasing one. Per MTS Ordinance and CA Penal Codes”

Now, because I knew about the SDUPD code, I knew that the obscured part of that sign, above, was probably the same one. I was still pretty close to the Harbor front and the Convention Center. But I could also picture someone not knowing.

Or caring. How often do we think about the web of laws that surround us as we move through our lives. Speed limits, sure, to a certain extent. Same with the lines on the pavement. Or walk signs at intersections. Grass is a plant. What happens if I walk on the grass by this sign?

Everything’s Local

There are some large municipal code sites like Municode.com and Amlegal, which has San Diego County (but not city or Port District or transit authority). At least people can start there if they’re looking for local laws. As long as you know the jurisdiction.

It doesn’t help that it’s not easy to find the County ordinances on the County web site (you have to know, for one thing, that they are called “ordinances”). Nor is it useful that the links from the County site, once you find them, no longer go to the County’s laws but just to the Amlegal home page.

I found Anne Lucke‘s presentation at the AALL WestPac Annual Conference, on locating tribal law, to resonate for some of the same reasons. Tribal law is law. And there are reasons that tribal jurisdictions keep their laws on their own web site, rather than paying a publisher to aggregate and update them. Anne’s presentation touched on how her library, the National Indian Law Library, is trying to bridge that gap. They’re hosting some laws, helping surface the existence of others. The same challenges, but with a law library trying to draw all the threads together.

We have so much law that governs our lives that is hyper local and not part of any major legal publisher’s roadmap. It’s not that it’s inaccessible so much as it’s out of sight. It’s not always well-marked, or requires extra knowledge to know about. Perhaps, once you’ve been cited, the document clarifies more about what you did. But that’s not really the point of laws. Even when, as I found, you have clues to what the law is called, you still may have hurdles to access it.

When funders talk about everything being on the internet, we know they’re not right. But even when law is on the internet, it doesn’t mean its accessible. It has the potential for being accessible. But it isn’t, unless someone finds it. Or gets to a law librarian and is guided to it.