By David Armstrong

Aggressive street touts in open doorways of some downtown businesses have long been an aggravation to residents, workers, neighboring businesses and visitors in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Recently, aggravation turned to consternation in two instances involving Ocean Avenue skin-care shops.

In one case, a woman visiting from Capitola reported being given an unrelenting hard sell after being lured inside by a street tout, resulting in her paying $1,625.70 for a face-care product. When she discovered that the product box she left the shop with was empty, she took the business, Ocean Skin Care, to Small Claims Court. She won, and got a full refund.

Soon after, another out-of-town visitor complained to the police department, chamber of commerce and city officials that another Ocean Avenue skin-care shop, Body Frenzy, lured her inside and verbally harassed her until she, too, made a purchase just so the ordeal would end. Her $324 purchase, she said, resulted in a box containing an empty plastic vial that was supposed to contain a skin-care product.

Both cases were reported in Pacific Grove’s Pine Cone weekly newspaper. Neither has been independently verified, but if the visitors’ stories are corroborated, touting has reached a new low.

City Attorney Glen Mozingo told this writer, in a story published in the November/December 2017 issue of the CRA publication The Voice  – that First Amendment free-speech protection gives merchants the right to solicit business from inside their stores, though not outside. This, Mozingo said, is based on a 1942 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

We’re not constitutional lawyers – and we don’t know if a present-day case would result in a different ruling by today’s court. But it seems to us that extending First Amendment free-speech protection to protect verbal intimidation inside private businesses would be a major stretch.

Many CRA members share our opinion of touting. When the CRA sent out a membership survey this past summer, street touting emerged as the single most important quality-of-life concern of the Carmel residents and property owners who answered our questionnaire.

The question now is, what is the city going to do about it? Can it do something substantive?

Some skin-care shops, hat sellers and the sprinkling of restaurants that engage street touts to drum up trade have received warning letters from city hall, and this has appeared to curtail most – but not all – hustling outside on the sidewalk. Mozingo told us he has scheduled meetings with offending vendors, but said those meetings hadn’t happened yet. Carmel-by-the-Sea Chief of Police Paul Tomasi told the Pine Cone that while the police were aware of the second visitor’s charge of in-the-shop intimidation, there was “Nothing definite right now. We are still looking into it.’’

Maybe there’s something going on behind the scenes at city hall to tackle this persistent problem head-on – perhaps by requiring complete compliance with city ordinances as a condition of signing a lease and getting a business license. Perhaps by turning warning letters into citations and citations into fines for serial offenders. Or perhaps by revoking business licenses and ending offenders’ ability to do business in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

We hope so. Robust enforcement of city ordinances would help improve the quality of life downtown – and enhance the business climate for the many honest businesses who don’t use obnoxious sales tactics. No, passers-by don’t have to go inside a shop, but alleged intimidation of some who do – plus the common come-ons and call-outs on both sides of Ocean – degrades the experience of visitors and residents. As citizens, we have a role to play by advocating consistent code enforcement.

Footnote: It’s worth noting another detail from a newspaper story about touts. According to a resident, when he warned a loquacious tout that what she was doing was illegal, she followed him to his parked car and snapped a photo of his license plate. Sounds like an implicit threat, to us.