Street peddlers have always had a presence in New York City. The historic photo archives are filled with images of stalls on the Lower East Side and in Little Italy and Midtown.
But while many of today's peddlers are licensed and regulated by the Department of Consumer Affairs (the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene regulates food vendors), police say an aggressive subculture of vendors is responsible for troubling incidents of assaults and robberies.
"Peddlers can be at some level a quality of life [issue]," said NYPD spokesman Paul Browne, referring to the nuisance factor of clogged sidewalks.
In addition, some act in ways that are "a more serious risk to the public," he said.
A dramatic example of what police say can happen in confrontations with violent peddlers occurred Thursday when an undercover city police officer shot and killed Raymond Martinez, a Times Square sidewalk purveyor of music CDs, after the Bronx man pulled out a small machine gun and fired at the pursuing officer. Police said Martinez, 25, bolted when the officer asked to see his tax stamp.
Most are not violent
Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of police encounters with peddlers aren't explosive. But the street-vendor world still is a source of problems for the cops and the public.
For a start, the legal picture for vendors is a bit complex. By law, the city caps the number of vendors of general merchandise at 853. An additional 1,700 veterans can be licensed, which pushes the number of licensed vendors to about 2,500, said a spokesman for the Department of Consumer Affairs.
On top of those with licenses are so-called "First Amendment vendors" who need no permits if they are selling "expressive" material such as books or music, officials said.
Martinez, by selling his or other artists' music CDs, arguably was a First Amendment vendor. But he decided to run, perhaps fearful that they would find his MAC-10 9-mm machine pistol or discover he was wanted on warrants for disorderly conduct and assault.
Police said Martinez had a history of aggressive street sales that targeted tourists for scams. Such vendors try to compel the public into purchasing CDs by writing a customer's name on the item and then forcing a sale, police investigators said.
Aggressive CD peddlers
Some music peddlers had become aggressive and "we have had robbery and grand larcenies from these conditions in the past," said Capt. Edward Winski, executive officer of the Midtown South Precinct, which covers Times Square. "They surround a person and try to use intimidation."
The result has been arrests for assaults as well as robberies, he said. He also noted that peddlers who ignore summonses for lack of tax stamps have warrants issued for their arrests. Some 400 such arrests have occurred so far this year, with nearly twice as many summonses issued, Win-ski said.
Aside from intimidation, the public also has to be wary of counterfeit merchandise in its dealings with peddlers.
It is no secret that some vendors sell knock-offs and outright fake goods, an illicit commerce that Browne said is international in scope and more organized and extensive than the CD racket. In one scam, vendors even sell unwary buyers a laptop box filled instead with bricks, Winski said.
Arrests for trademark counterfeiting among vendors and their suppliers is up 18.7 percent in 2009 over the year before, police said.