The interaction of a skater and law enforcement is a constant theme in skateboarding and will last as long as politicians think they know what’s best for the protection of property and the skateboarding masses.
However, due to variations in laws from state to state and the uneven enforcement of the laws, many skaters don’t even know when they are violating the law. One area where there seems to be a lot of confusion is when protective gear is required and when it’s not. A review of the relevant laws of several states illustrates where the confusion may begin.
California residents are privy to the most restrictive laws in the country. California requires all skaters under the age of eighteen to wear a helmet when skateboarding on public streets and paths. California law also states that no public skateparks shall permit any person, regardless of age, to ride a skateboard unless that person is adorned with helmet, elbow pads, and kneepads.
In comparison, Oregon only requires skaters under sixteen to wear helmets on streets and public premises (nothing mentioned about elbow pads or kneepads), the fine is only 25 dollars if cited, and if you can prove that you own a helmet, the fine will be waived the first time. Arizona has no state law regulating safety equipment and skateboarding, and New York only requires kids under the age of fourteen to strap on lids.
Unfortunately, state governments are not the only level of government that can create laws regulating skateboarding. Laws can be enacted at the county or city level that can further restrict a skater’s freedom by requiring skaters to don pads in the name of safety. Both Yuma and Tucson have enacted city helmet laws for the under-eighteens, even though Arizona has no statewide legislation.
Regrettably, the reverse cannot happen. As a quick lesson in constitutional law-a lower level of government can usually pass laws that are more restrictive than the relevant law found in upper levels, as is the case with the Yuma example. But even if Karl Watson shed his “unofficial” title as mayor of San Francisco and replaced Willie Brown as the official mayor, Watson could not, as much as he may want to, make SF a helmet- and pad-free zone. However-and this is where the issue of uneven enforcement comes in-he could let the police know that he would prefer if they didn’t harass skaters for not wearing helmets.
It is situations like the Watson-for-mayor scenario that makes enforcement vary so widely in California. More likely than not certain regions have higher-ups in government that have a certain belief on how to effect enforcement.
Chris Pastras, co-owner of Stereo, team manager of Osiris, and an aficionado of transition, has bounced between So Cal and NorCal more than a few times and has skated many a street and park in between. But because of the way each area enforces the laws, he had no idea that the same law applies in SF as it does in San Diego. What he does know is that wearing a helmet and rocking eyeglasses is too goofy of a look for him to bear.
The reason why the enforcement of helmet laws varies so much comes down to the philosophy of each police department and the individual officer. Steve Hammock, superintendent of parks in Santa Cruz, California, believes that the Santa Cruz police normally give out warnings because they want the message (of wearing helmets) to come from home, and they don’t want to feel like the police are taking the place of the parents. In contrast, anecdotal evidence indicates that Carlsbad, California police follow the strict interpretation of the law and enforce it at every opportunity. Did somebody say revenue generation?
The end result is that it is dangerous to rely on your police action experiences to figure out what is and what isn’t a violation of the law. It may be wise to know the law ahead of time, so if you are confronted by the police, you can maybe avoid adding your name to the ever-growing list of skaters with pollice drama experience.