The National Pulse

These 2 Cities Are Penalizing Food Trucks to Protect Restaurants. That’s a Bad Idea.

This article is part of a series focusing on Lens of Liberty, a project of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation.

In her Liberty Minute titled “Designing Freedom,” Helen Krieble tells the story of a lady she knows whose ability to make a living as an interior designer was threatened by legislation aimed at eliminating competition by entrepreneurs like her:

I know a lady who set up an interior design business and was doing quite well, her business growing quickly. But the established design industry didn’t like the competition. Its lobbyists convinced the state legislature to pass a requirement that all designers had to be certified by their national trade association. That effectively meant nobody knew could get into that business — at least not without paying expensive dues to a non-governmental organization.

But this lady looked through the lens of liberty and realized such an abuse of state power amounted to a subsidy for some and a prohibition for others. She fought the law and defeated it, leaving her and other aspiring designers free to enjoy the pursuit of happiness as our founders intended. One dedicated citizen can be a powerful force for freedom.

In several places around the country, food truck owners have found themselves in similar situations, fighting uphill battles against legislatures concerned only with protecting powerful interest groups from competition.

The Institute for Justice (IJ), a non-profit public interest law firm, has gotten involved in two such cases, one in Chicago and one in Baltimore. Both cities have laws containing provisions which make it illegal to operate a food truck within 200 and 300 feet respectively of brick-and-mortar restaurants. Just before Christmas, the law firm announced that major developments had recently occurred in both cases.

In a December 18 press release, IJ reported that the Illinois First District Appellate Court “dealt a major blow to Chicago’s food truck scene” by upholding the city’s controversial ban on operating a food truck within 200 feet of any brick-and-mortar restaurant and its requirement that all food trucks must have GPS tracking devices. The devices record the truck’s location every five minutes and make that data available to anyone who asks for it.

IJ has been involved in this case for many years now ever since it first teamed up with the food truck “Cupcakes for Courage” to challenge the law in 2012. Their lawsuit contains two major arguments: first, the city of Chicago is unconstitutionally protecting restaurants from the competition that food trucks bring; and second, the GPS requirement is an illegal search forbidden by the Illinois Constitution.

Data obtained through the lawsuit shows that the 200-foot rule is clearly aimed at protecting restaurants, particularly those in the city’s North Loop business district, from competition:

According to the analysis, food trucks can legally park and operate on just 3 percent of the district’s curbs. And many of the few remaining parking spaces are nowhere near the Loop’s high-density population areas.

Despite the unfavorable appellate court ruling, IJ’s Senior Attorney Robert Frommer has pledged to continue fighting the unconstitutional provisions all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court. Although food trucks owners in Chicago have not seen justice yet, Frommer is optimistic that they will eventually.

Just two days after the Illinois case was decided, IJ found some hope in a victory for food trucks in a different city. In Baltimore, there had been a similar ban on “mobile vendors operating within 300 feet of any brick-and-mortar business that sells primarily the same product or service.” On December 20, however, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled that no “reasonable person” would be able to make sense of the provisions which were too vague for the city to be able to enforce.

Although encouraged by the ruling, IJ was not completely satisfied since the judge’s ruling failed to answer the question of whether or not the law’s purpose — “to financially benefit brick-and-mortar businesses by making their competition illegal” — violates the Maryland Constitution. Therefore, Frommer plans to appeal this ruling as well, promising that “until the Maryland courts declare once and for all that cities cannot make it a crime to compete, we will keep fighting.”

Returning to Krieble’s point, if the judges deciding these cases took a look through the lens of liberty, they would see that what Frommer describes as attempts “to stack the deck in favor of the more politically connected” are unjust abuses of state power which protect powerful business owners from competition by taking away the liberty of other individuals. Hopefully before long, food truck owners in both Chicago and Baltimore will have their freedom restored so they can continue serving the food we all love.

Terry Schilling

Terry Schilling is executive director of the American Principles Project.