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Lawyer: Baltimore food truck restrictions are unconstitutional | COMMENTARY

Joey Vanoni, left, owner, and Marcel Jennings hold an "Alyssa's Jumbo Lump Crab Dip Pizza" that just came out of the oven at Pizza di Joey, one of the new food businesses at Cross Street Market. Mr. Vanoni has sued the city of Baltimore over restrictions on where food trucks can operate.
Joey Vanoni, left, owner, and Marcel Jennings hold an "Alyssa's Jumbo Lump Crab Dip Pizza" that just came out of the oven at Pizza di Joey, one of the new food businesses at Cross Street Market. Mr. Vanoni has sued the city of Baltimore over restrictions on where food trucks can operate. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Before there was a United States of America, there was Maryland. After breaking free from British rule in 1776, Maryland’s founders enacted a constitution that broadly protected the rights to life, liberty and property their ancestors had fought so hard to secure. Now a local pizza maker, Joey Vanoni, is asking the Court of Appeals to honor Maryland’s unique constitution by striking down a Baltimore ordinance that threatens to make him a criminal simply for selling slices to hungry customers.

A New Jersey native, Mr. Vanoni came to Maryland in 2013 after leaving the Navy. He had always loved pizza — he even made it for his fellow soldiers while in the mountains of Afghanistan — so he jumped at his friend’s suggestion that he turn his passion into a business. With limited financial resources, opening a whole pizzeria wasn’t an option. But Mr. Vanoni soon realized he could outfit a food truck with a brick oven so he could make authentic New York-style pizzas anywhere, anytime. With that, Pizza di Joey was born.

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The truck was an instant smash, but it quickly ran into a roadblock. Baltimore makes it a crime for vendors to operate within 300 feet of any brick and mortar business that sells “the same type” of food. That 300-foot ban blocked Pizza di Joey from vast swaths of the city. There was no shelter anywhere: Even when Mr. Vanoni parked in what he thought was a legal spot, a police officer who had received a complaint from a restaurant threatened him with enforcement. Shaken, he largely stopped coming into Baltimore altogether.

But Mr. Vanoni didn’t back down: He joined forces with Madame BBQ, another local food truck, and sued. In that lawsuit, Baltimore admitted it designed the 300-foot ban to protect brick and mortar restaurants from competition. In other words, the ban threatened to turn food truck owners into criminals so restaurateurs would have the market all to themselves.

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In some states, such baldly protectionist laws have been upheld by courts, but Maryland isn’t one of those states. That’s because the Framers of the Maryland constitution had people like Mr. Vanoni in mind. They included a special provision, Article 24, into the state constitution. With language coming directly from England’s historic Magna Carta, the Framers wrote Article 24 to protect Marylanders’ common law rights, including the right to practice one’s trade. Throughout much of the state’s history, Maryland courts cited Article 24 in striking down arbitrary and anti-competitive laws like Baltimore’s 300-foot ban. Laws that gave Baltimore’s mayor unfettered power to shut down any business’ steam engine, granted a taxi monopoly for Havre de Grace residents and prohibited cosmetologists from cutting men’s hair were all declared unconstitutional.

But honoring Article 24 didn’t mean that courts struck down sensible laws actually focused on protecting health and safety. The Court of Appeals regularly upheld laws that, for instance, required the disposal of impure milk or that banned using an apartment as a factory. This history shows that, if the court strikes down the 300-foot ban, regulations about where trucks can park and serve customers safely would remain firmly in place.

Baltimore’s attorneys, however, want the court to throw away Maryland’s birthright. They claim that Maryland’s constitution should offer no more protection to entrepreneurs like Mr. Vanoni than what they think the federal constitution currently offers. But Maryland’s constitution is its own, and it is historically bankrupt to argue that Marylanders’ rights should rise and fall based on the whims of federal courts. Marylanders’ rights rest on firmer stuff than that.

Mr. Vanoni still believes in Baltimore. Although the 300-foot ban forced him to operate mainly outside of Baltimore, he recently opened a food stall at the Cross Street Market. He is achieving his entrepreneurial dream, but he is still fighting for his fellow entrepreneurs across the state. Now the question is whether other Marylanders — or those looking to come to Maryland — will see a path toward prosperity here or look elsewhere to make their American dream reality.

That is a question only the Maryland Court of Appeals can decide. It will hear Mr. Vanoni’s case Thursday. Here is hoping they protect the rights of Marylanders to earn an honest living in the occupation of their choice free from the arbitrary, excessive and anti-competitive use of government power.

Robert Frommer (rfrommer@ij.org) is a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, which represents Joey Vanoni in his appeal to the state’s High Court.

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