Laws and Rights for Street Vendors

In the United States, state laws and ordinances regulate street vendors for food and other products. The exact rules depend on the state where the commercial activity is carried out.

There is no uniform federal law determining when a street or sidewalk vendor is doing an illegal act. States must create their own rules in this regard. The issue of mobile stalls in the street has a long history of controversies and lawsuits, especially in the largest capitals of the country.

On the other hand, the void left by a uniform framework of laws also exposes street vendors to attack, robbery and harassment.

Is It Legal To Sell Items on the Street?

Before starting a street vendor business, it is advisable to check your state and city laws. You need to know what type of documentation, licenses, and permits you need. This applies to selling both food or other items.

Tourists and immigrants who come to the United States may wonder why street sales are not a big industry like other parts of the world. This is mainly due to the strict government controls that exist in each state.

Concerns Surrounding Street Vending

Each state can decide how to handle street vendors. It is often believed that street sales can be a threat to public health and safety.

States have business rules that are difficult to apply to street vending, such as:

  • Rules that control the sale of food to avoid health problems and intoxication. If the seller moves frequently, it would be very difficult to control an epidemic.
  • Anti-competition laws prevent businesses from being too close to one another. Physical structures are fixed (brick and mortar), so these businesses do not support street vending because it would take away customers.
  • Tax laws require reporting sales income in most states. If the seller is not registered, the collection becomes difficult.
  • Ordinances that control the obstruction and blocking of common spaces. A mobile vending booth could break these rules.
  • Laws that control the gathering of people for no apparent reason (called loitering) in private and public spaces, such as parking lots, school zones, and hospitals.
  • Liability and insurance laws. A seller must answer for the products sold and any damage or sickness they cause.

In addition, there is a belief that street vending encourages certain types of crimes, such as drug trafficking or the illegal sale of alcohol.

Considering these aspects, some jurisdictions allow limited ways to sell on the street, and others simply consider it illegal.

Right to Work For Street Vendors

In the last ten years, street vending has become very popular, particularly with the rise of mobile food trucks. In the southern states of the country, street sales grow every day because the climate favors it.

Because of this, citizens dedicated to street vendors have organized. They work with various activist groups to defend the right to work and to earn an economic livelihood. They consider it unconstitutional that street vending and food trucks are so strictly restricted.

This movement favoring street vending has led entrepreneurs to sue their city or state to defend their right to work, considering it discrimination.

Some cities have even decriminalized street vending. But even so, the promotion of its development is slow. In other jurisdictions in the country, a temporary permit is only offered for a day or more if someone is going to sell at an authorized event or festival.

Do I Need a Permit to Work as a Street Vendor?

State and local jurisdictions that allow certain types of street vending require a permit or license. Selling products without permission is not totally legal.

However, if you sell newspapers and articles of artistic expression, you do not need a permit. The seller is protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression.

But, you need to notify the city to obtain a location for your booth or kiosk. This is the only way for such sales and to comply with location regulations. These sales are not allowed in any area of the city. Also, there is usually a limit on the number of permits issued.

Here are the regulations that states have where street vending is very popular:

Florida Vendor Laws

Street vendors must have a permit from the city or county. They must also register with Florida’s Department of Revenue and obtain a certificate to report sales tax. If you sell food, you are subject to the same permits as a restaurant owner.

In some cities and counties in Florida, tents, tables, or blankets are not allowed on the ground, so the seller must be on the move. It also can’t be sold in some areas. For example, in Miami-Dade County, vendors cannot be within 500 feet of a park or school.

California Vendor Laws

Street vendors require a permit that must be managed in your particular city. On January 1, 2019, the statute SB 946 came into effect. This law decriminalizes street vending in California, allows obtaining a permit, and outlines the process to pay and file taxes. This law considers street vendors as micro-entrepreneurs. Therefore, they are subject to rules and conditions.

New York Vendor Laws

Most cities in New York state require a permit to sell on the street. This is one of the states where food truck owners and other street vendors have organized the strongest to defend their right to work.

Since 2020, a law to expand the number of permits and regulations has been under discussion. However, in New York City, legislation 1116 was passed, which increased the number of city permits for the next ten years to 4,000. A specific number of permits are for Manhattan and then additional amounts exist for any county.

What if I Don’t Have Insurance To Sell on the Street?

Obtaining insurance is recommended for anyone who owns a business. In the case of food sales, it is often required before getting your food sale permit.

Insurance can be one of two types:

  • Liability insurance: Covers the business owner if a customer is adversely affected by the products sold. For example, poisoning from contaminated food, allergies caused by textiles, unintentional accidents with toys, etc. This insurance also protects against damage to other people’s property.
  • Insurance against damage or loss of your products (damage insurance): This insurance protects your property if damage occurs. For example, your juice or clothing cart is attacked, or your sales items are destroyed. Coverage depends on the protections you add to your policy.

If you don’t have insurance or permission to sell on the street, you risk losing your business. Street vendors are easy targets for harassment and attacks on property by other citizens. In some jurisdictions, the police cannot seize property if you sell without permission. But the rules vary.

What To Do if a Street Vendor Is Harassed or Attacked?

Street vendors are a frequent target of harassment, threats, and theft. Even more so if your business moves from one place to another.

In an emergency, the seller has the right to call the police and request protection like any other citizen.

If you are injured, you also have the right to file a claim for personal injury or damage to your property. However, it is sometimes difficult for a street vendor to identify the details of the individual who caused the damage.

For this reason, it is convenient to follow the location regulations of the jurisdiction where you sell. This makes the work of the police easier.

If you decide to defend yourself from attack or assault, you may also be liable for other damages caused. This applies even if you claim that you did it in self-defense. In these cases, a lawyer can guide you through your options.

Can I Sue if My Merchandise Is Confiscated or Destroyed by the Authorities?

Cases of confiscation and destroyed merchandise are registered by the health and hygiene departments of the city or by the police. If you have a license to sell and your products do not pose a threat, this should not happen.

A person’s private property can’t be destroyed. But the rules on how to act also depend on the jurisdiction where the seller is located.

Regulations on street vending are relatively new, and each year they are expanded. This means more rights are granted to vendors, especially in large cities. But where there are no specific rules, the degree of illegality makes your products unprotected.

In April 2019, 300 vendors of mostly immigrant origin won a lawsuit for $188,000 against New York City. The lawsuit was for damage caused to their merchandise and product confiscation.

In 2017, another class-action lawsuit required Los Angeles to pay a $150,000 settlement to affected street vendors.

The reasons for a lawsuit depend on many factors. In these cases, it is possible to sue for the destruction of private property, discrimination, and limitation of your right to work, among other reasons.

It is best to see an attorney with experience in street vending and civil rights law to determine whether your case should proceed to a lawsuit. Most of the rules and ordinances are new. Therefore, an attorney familiar with the business and commercial laws in your area can best assist you.

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