California Proposition 4, the Red Light Abatement Act (1914)
In March 1913, the California State Legislature enacted a law that came to be known as the "Red Light Abatement Act". The Governor of California signed the law on April 7, 1913. The law set forth some law enforcement actions that could be taken against any building in the state where "acts of lewdness, assignation or prostitution" take place. Specifically, the "Red Light Abatement Act" authorized law enforcers to:
- Remove "fixtures and movable property" from such buildings.
- Close premises "to any use for one year unless court releases same upon bond of owner."
- Set fees for the removal of fixtures and property, and require that the owner of the property pay the fees.
- Allowing the sale of removed fixtures and property to settle the removal costs.
A group of Californians who objected to that new law used California's process of veto referendum to contest it at the ballot box.
A "yes" vote was a vote to uphold the new law. A "no" vote was a vote to reject the new law.
Text of measure
The ballot title was:
- "Declares nuisance any building or place where acts of lewdness, assignation or prostitution occur, and general reputation admissible to prove existence of nuisance; prescribes procedure for abatement thereof; requires removal and sale of fixtures and movable property used in aid thereof, closing premises to any use for one year unless court releases same upon bond of owner; prescribes fees therefore, making same and all costs payable from proceeds of such sale, requiring sale of premises to satisfy any deficiency; makes fines lien upon interest in premises."
The official ballot guide argument in favor of the "Red Light Abatement Act" was signed by Edwin E. Grant, a Democratic California State Senator. Grant's sponsorship of the "Red Light Abatement Act" led to his recall from office.
Arguments in favor
The gist of the argument in favor of a "yes" vote on Proposition 4 was:
- "The scattering of the evil throughout the residence district would be impossible under this act, because any citizen is given the legal machinery to drive prostitution out. Such abatement laws in other states have not resulted in "scatteration." They have, however, resulted in wiping out the unclean profits of those who prey upon fallen women, thereby reducing prostitution to its minimum."
The full argument published in the official voter guide in favor of a "yes" vote was:
The Red Light Abatement Act makes investments in exploitation of prostitution insecure. Under this act, any citizen may proceed against a house of prostitution as a nuisance. If the nuisance be proved, the house must be closed for one year unless the owner furnishes a bond that the house shall be used only for lawful purposes.
The act is not an experiment. Similar laws are in force in Oregon, Washington, Iowa, Nebraska, Utah, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Kansas. Congress recently enacted, and President Wilson signed, a similar law for the District of Columbia.
The commission appointed by the Massachusetts legislature to investigate this problem says: "The laws for the suppression of 'places resorted to for the purpose of prostitution,' should provide for the penalizing of the property so used." The committee then recommends the Iowa plan of abatement. The New York vice committee says that "the abatement law in force in Iowa would be equally effective in New York."
Large amounts are invested in exploiting prostitution. The profits are enormous.
The Empire House at San Francisco cost some $8,000.00. The seventy cribs rented at $5.00 a night each--$350.00 a night, $127,750.00 a year. (See transactions of the Commonwealth Club of California, Vol. VI, No. 1, page 48.) A San Francisco trust company has been shown to have invested trust funds in a five-story assignation house. (Report published by San Francisco supervisors, on Causes of Municipal Corruption, 1910, pp. 18-19.) At the trial of Mayor Schmitz, testimony was given that one of these San Francisco houses represented an investment of $400,000.00. (Transcript, People vs. Schmitz, p. 557.)
No blackmail or extortion has been attempted in other states under this act. "The talk about blackmail is without merit," writes Attorney General Cosson of Iowa, "and is circulated by believers in segregated districts." Attorney General Martin of Nebraska writes: "I have never heard of a case where this law was used for the purpose of blackmail." District Attorney Evans of Portland, Oregon, states, "Within my knowledge the Oregon law has not been used for the purpose of persecuting innocent property owners nor for blackmail."
The scattering of the evil throughout the residence district would be impossible under this act, because any citizen is given the legal machinery to drive prostitution out. Such abatement laws in other states have not resulted in "scatteration." They have, however, resulted in wiping out the unclean profits of those who prey upon fallen women, thereby reducing prostitution to its minimum.
The owner who rents property for legitimate purposes has nothing to fear from this law. It simply requires that owners shall know as much about the use of their property as their neighbors know. The owner who rents property for purposes of prostitution has much to fear.
To vote in favor of the Abatement Act mark your ballot "Yes."
The official ballot guide argument in favor of a "no" vote on Proposition 4 was signed by George Appell, the attorney for the Property Owners' Protective Association of California.
The gist of the argument in favor of a "no" vote on Proposition 4 was:
- "If the Red Light Abatement Bill becomes effective, prostitution will not be abated nor minimized, but property will be abated, and its value impaired. The property owner and his respectable tenant will pay the price of this act of the legislature; but, irrespective of that, the prostitute will go merrily on, plying her trade as she has plied it from the beginning, and a citizen will always be doubtful as to the character of the person in the house next door."
The full argument published in the official voter guide in favor of a "no" vote was:
The referendum against the so-called Red Light Abatement Law was inaugurated by property owners of this state. It is, therefore, the purpose of the writer to treat the subject from the viewpoint of the property owner.
Lack of space precludes a specific analysis of the various sections of the act; but a general statement of the drastic provisions of the same will enable the writer to point out how far the authors of the bill have wandered from their purpose.
Sections one and two of the act should be read together. Their provisions affect the owner of any building which may be entered through the same outside entrance, and in which building any act of lewdness, assignation or prostitution is held to occur, and in that event, such building shall be abated. It is easy to conceive how the owner of a flat building, rooming house, apartment house or hotel, or even an office building, may become the innocent victim of these sections, and unless the owners thereof establish a censor of morals in their buildings, they will soon become the innocent victims of enthusiastic reformers. But one act of prostitution, assignation or lewdness in any building is sufficient to cause the building to be abated.
The legislature undoubtedly intended that the law should be directed against houses of prostitution, and if the act becomes effective, naturally the houses of prostitution will close without court proceedings. The obvious result will he that the women who ply that business will seek other places for their abode. It will, therefore, become impossible for the owner of property to determine when renting his property, the character of those desiring to become his tenants, and no matter how straight-laced the owner of residence property may be, he will sooner or later become the landlord of an unfortunate woman. It is well to bear in mind that but one act of prostitution, assignation or lewdness in any building with a common entrance is sufficient to have the building abated or enjoined.
Sections 7 to 10 of the act are the property-destroying clauses thereof. Substantially they provide that if the existence of a nuisance be established, a judgment of abatement shall be entered as a part of the judgment in the case. Thereupon all the movable fixtures and property in any building sought out for attack are to be removed, and the building kept closed for a period of one year.
If the Red Light Abatement Bill becomes effective, prostitution will not be abated nor minimized, but property will be abated, and its value impaired. The property owner and his respectable tenant will pay the price of this act of the legislature; but, irrespective of that, the prostitute will go merrily on, plying her trade as she has plied it from the beginning, and a citizen will always be doubtful as to the character of the person in the house next door.
Text of Red Light Abatement Act
The full text of the "Red Light Abatement Act", which was upheld by the state's voters when they approved Proposition 4, was:
An act declaring all buildings and places nuisances wherein or upon which acts of lewdness, assignation or prostitution are held or occur or which are used for such purposes, and providing for the abatement and prevention of such nuisances by injunction and otherwise.
The people of the State of California do enact as follows:
The term "person" as used in this act shall be deemed and held or mean and include individuals, corporations, associations, partnerships, trustees, lessees, agents and assignees. The term "building" as used in this act shall be deemed and held to mean and include so much of any building or structure of any kind as is or may be entered through the same outside entrance.
Every building or place used for the purpose of lewdness, assignation or prostitution and every building or place wherein or upon which acts of lewdness, assignation or prostitution are held to occur, is a nuisance which shall be enjoined, abated and prevented as hereinafter provided, whether the same be a public or a private nuisance.
Whenever there is a reason to believe that such nuisance is kept, maintained or exists in any county or city and county, the district attorney of said county or city and county, in the name of the people of the State of California, must, or any citizen of the state resident within said county or city and county, in his own name may, maintain an action in equity to abate and prevent such nuisance and to perpetually enjoin the person or persons conducting or maintaining the same, and the owner, lessee or agent of the building, or place, in or upon which such nuisance exists, from directly or indirectly maintaining or permitting such nuisance.
The complaint in such action must be verified unless filed by the district attorney. Whenever the existence of such nuisance is shown in such action to the satisfaction of the court or judge thereof, either by verified complaint or affidavit, the court or judge shall allow a temporary writ of injunction to abate and prevent the continuance of recurrence of such nuisance.
The action when brought shall have precedence over all other actions, excepting criminal proceedings, election contests and hearings on injunctions, and in such action evidence of the general reputation of the place shall be admissible for the purpose of proving the existence of said nuisance. If the complaint is filed by a citizen, it shall not be dismissed by the plaintiff or for want of prosecution except upon a sworn statement made by the complainant and his attorney, setting forth the reasons why the action should be dismissed, and the dismissal ordered by the court. In case of failure to prosecute any such action with reasonable diligence, or at the request of the plaintiff, the court, in its discretion, may substitute any such citizen contesting thereto for such plaintiff. If the action is brought by a citizen and the court finds there was no reasonable ground or cause for said action, the costs shall be taxed against such citizen.
Any violation or disobedience of either any injunction or order expressly provided for by this act shall be punished as contempt of court by a fine of not less than two hundred dollars nor more than one thousand dollars, or by imprisonment in the county jail for not less than one month nor more than six months, or by both such fine and imprisonment.
If the existence of the nuisance be established in an action as provided herein, an order of abatement shall be entered as a part of the judgment in the case, which order shall direct the removal from the building or place of all fixtures, musical instruments and movable property used in conducting, maintaining, aiding or abetting the nuisance, and shall direct the sale thereof in the manner provided for the sale of chattels under execution, and the effectual closing of the building or place against its use for any purpose, and so keeping it closed for a period of one year, unless sooner released, as hereinafter provided. While such order remains in effect as to closing, such building or place shall be and remain in the custody of the court. For removing and selling the movable property, the officer shall be entitled to charge and receive the same fees as he would for levying upon and selling like property on execution, and for closing the premises and keeping them closed, a reasonable sum shall be allowed by the court.
The proceeds of the sale of the property, as provided in the preceding section, shall be applied as follows:
If the proceeds of such sale do not fully discharge all such costs, fees and allowances, the said building and place shall then also be sold under execution issued upon the order of the court or judge and the proceeds of such sale applied in like manner.
If the owner of the building or place has not been guilty of any contempt of court in the proceedings, and appears and pays all costs, fees and allowances which are a lien on the building or place and files a bond in the full value of the property, to be ascertained by the court, with sureties, to be approved by the court or judge, conditioned that he will immediately abate any such nuisance that may exist at such building or place and prevent the same from being established or kept thereat within a period of one year thereafter, the court, or judge thereof, may, if satisfied of his good faith, order the premises, closed under the order of abatement, to be delivered to said owner, and said order of abatement canceled so far as the same may relate to said property. The release of the property under the provisions of this section shall not release it from any judgment, lien, penalty or liability to which it may be subject by law.
Whenever the owner of a building or place upon which the act or acts constituting the contempt shall have been committed, or of any interest therein has been guilty of a contempt of court and fined therefore in any proceedings under this act, such fine shall be a lien upon such building and place to the extent of the interest of such person therein enforceable and collectible by execution issued by order of the court.
All acts and parts of acts in conflict with the provisions of this act are hereby repealed; provided, that nothing herein shall be construed as repealing any law for the suppression of lewdness, assignation or prostitution.
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