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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Donation-Bin Law Fight Likely Headed to Trial

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge on Wednesday refused to block a new Oakland ordinance that restricts unattended donation bins in the city.

Richmond, California-based nonprofit Recycle for Change sued the cities of Oakland and Hayward this past November, claiming newly passed regulations on collection boxes violate its constitutional rights of free speech and equal protection under the law.

The Oakland ordinance, passed on Oct. 20, limits the areas where donation bins can be placed, requires annual permit fees and imposes fines on noncomplying bin owners.

During a Wednesday hearing, U.S. District Judge William Orrick III said he found the ordinance was enacted for a legitimate government purpose and that it does not favor certain types of donation bins based on content.

"The regulation does not discriminate on the message or cause supported," Orrick said. "There's a significant public interest in regulating poorly maintained unattended collection bins."

The city of Oakland says the regulations were drafted to address illegal dumping and scavenging near bins, along with issues of graffiti, traffic congestion and other public safety concerns.

Recycle for Change attorney John Schilt argued a ruling in favor of Oakland would jettison the Sixth Circuit's 2015 ruling in Planet Aid v. City of St. Johns, which found a Michigan city's ban on charity bins was unconstitutional.

The judge disagreed, saying that unlike the total ban imposed in St. Johns, Oakland simply restricted where donation bins can be located and imposed reasonable fees for the administration of its new regulations.

Schilt countered the city of Oakland created "hypothetical" damages to justify the restrictions and concealed the true motive behind the ordinance, which he blamed on a nationwide lobbying effort by Goodwill Industries.

"Goodwill is really on a national effort trying to inhibit competition," Schilt said. "And they play with sharp elbows. In many cities, they try to advance these ordinances."

Oakland Deputy City Attorney Selia Warren urged the judge to focus on the "real issue" - whether the regulation is content-based, a determination that she said demands a ruling in favor of the city.

"In our case, we do have studies that support virtually all of the elements of our regulation, and we submitted all of that as evidence," Warren said. "I think it shows this regulation balances the rights of the charitable-donation entities with the city's need to regulate for the health and welfare of its citizens."

In his final pitch, Schilt implored the judge to closely scrutinize the sincerity of the city's arguments and to consider the chilling effect these new regulations could have on donors.

"With the First Amendment impacts, it should be an emotional thing for those who are getting their rights cut off by a stringent ordinance like what Oakland is doing," Schilt said. "I plead with the court to take a close look at what's going on here in Oakland."

The judge said he would not grant the charity's motion for a preliminary injunction, but that he would try to fast-track the case to trial so both parties can get a resolution on the challenged ordinance.

Orrick asked both parties to submit a joint case management plan by Jan. 26, and he scheduled a case management conference for Feb. 2.

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