Denver Government

Denver City Council Will Consider Jaywalking Decriminalization Ordinance

Denver City Council may decriminalize jaywalking.
Denver City Council may decriminalize jaywalking. Denver City Council
C'mon, admit it: You've jaywalked, haven't you? A fair number of us have, mostly because it can cut down on travel time, and it just feels natural — but it's also usually illegal. A group of advocates and Denver City Council members want to change that.

"I think it’s just a very commonsense change of bringing Denver’s laws in line with what we’re seeing in normal behavior in the street in a safe way," says Allen Cowgill of the Denver Bicycle Lobby, which has been pushing the policy shift.

After working with advocates like Cowgill, Council President Jamie Torres and councilmembers Candi CdeBaca and Jolon Clark have put forward an ordinance change that would largely decriminalize jaywalking in Denver. The measure is up for its first hearing in the Denver City Council Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure committee on January 10.

In particular, the changes would bring Denver's stricter jaywalking law in line with the looser Colorado jaywalking law. Right now, Denver law prohibits crossing any roadway, with the notable exception of a local neighborhood street, outside of the crosswalk. Jaywalking citations — whether falling into the criminal, municipal or traffic categories — carry the possibility of a $65 to $95 fine. Those who receive a criminal or municipal jaywalking citation must appear in court, while a person with a traffic jaywalking citation can pay a fee prior to a court appearance, as long as there are no other charges attached to the citation.

In contrast, state law allows people who are between two intersections with stop signs or an intersection with a stop sign and an intersection with a stoplight to cross the street without fear of being cited. State law still prohibits pedestrians from jaywalking when they're between two traffic lights; in those situations, they need to pick one of the crosswalks.

And both Denver and Colorado law require pedestrians crossing outside of a crosswalk to yield the right-of-way to vehicles in the roadway. Additionally, no one is allowed to simply run across highways, per both Denver and Colorado law.

"The question that we have is, 'Are we going to get people starting to walk out in front of us on Colfax or Federal because of that?' It’s still the same state law. You cannot walk out in front of a car outside of a crosswalk," Cowgill says.

Adds Torres, "Folks are very concerned. They want to make sure that they’re not approving something that puts anyone at risk on the streets. ... This is not giving pedestrians carte blanche to walk out into traffic and get in the right-of-way."

Instead, the new ordinance language would replace words that focus on the criminalization of jaywalking with language that advises safe crossing of roads.

For example, where the Denver ordinance says "No pedestrian shall" enter the roadway in the direction of a "Don't Walk" indication, the measure would strike that language and replace it with "Pedestrians facing such signals are cautioned not to cross the roadway."

The measure also encourages cops to make enforcing state-level jaywalking laws their lowest priority.

As can be seen by videos showing heavily trafficked streets in American cities from before the 1920s, pedestrians often crossed streets at the most convenient locations. Drivers had to avoid hitting these pedestrians and could be charged with manslaughter regardless of what led up to the accident, according to research by councilmembers.

"Back in the day, we had trolleys, we had horses, we had people walking down the street, we had bicycles, and the street was a public space meant to be shared by everybody," Cowgill says.

But the automotive industry viewed this phenomenon as a threat to their profits and campaigned to make jaywalking illegal.

"It was the auto industry that was like, 'Hey, we’ve got to figure out a way to make this easier for our vehicles to get around and not be liable,'" Cowgill notes.

A century later, the idea of decriminalizing jaywalking in Denver came out of a series of recommendations published by the Denver Task Force to Reimagine Policing and Public Safety.

"More than just addressing jaywalking, this is an example of how we can bring together different groups, different interests to coalition-build on common interests," says CdeBaca.

Just before the release of the task force's report in June 2021, Kansas City had decriminalized jaywalking. States like Virginia and California have also decriminalized jaywalking, while certain countries, like the United Kingdom, don't even have jaywalking laws.

According to the sponsors of the measure, the ordinance change is also designed to decrease unnecessary interactions between law enforcement and communities of color.

Councilwoman CdeBaca's office has been pulling data on jaywalking stops as part of the research for the proposal. There were 135 jaywalking cases in Denver from 2017 to 2022. The majority of the citations happened within Denver's inverted L, a shape showing west Denver and north Denver that often highlights inequities in the Mile High City. The most common locations for the citations were East Colfax Avenue, South Federal Boulevard, North Peoria Street and West Colfax Avenue.

And although Denver's population is just 10 percent black, 41 percent of the jaywalking citations were given to Black residents. Additionally, a quarter of the overall citations were issued to people identified as homeless, which is a massive overrepresentation of Denver's homeless population.

In a slide deck presentation for the committee hearing, the sponsors also wrote about their concerns that jaywalking stops were being used for pretextual purposes.

"We reviewed individual summons provided by Denver County Court for individuals who were charged with both a jaywalking citation as well as an additional charge. These cases showed that jaywalking citations were all officer-initiated calls that were used as a pretextual stop for charging residents with additional infractions that would be better suited for STAR response, rather than a police response, such as possession of drug paraphernalia and trespassing," the slide deck reads.

Decriminalizing jaywalking may also have an added benefit. One reason that the Department of Transportation & Infrastructure ended the popular shared streets program, which the city established in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic to get more people walking and biking on streets like 16th Avenue, was because of a conflict in Denver law and the program. This new ordinance would get rid of that conflict.

"That was a really popular program. ... There wasn’t mass carnage with sharing the street," Cowgill says. "If we really want to work on our street safety of not having people dying, this is a great moment for us to focus on infrastructure."
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.

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