Yellow Fervor

Lonny Unitus

It was a little after 6:00 on a Tuesday evening when the time finally came for Mike and Shelly to fess up. Mike, a neatly dressed 34-year-old graphic designer, and Shelly, a 23-year-old college student and aspiring human rights attorney, had committed identical crimes: In a state of drunkenness, each succumbed to the pressure of the bladder and, with inadequate discretion, relieved themselves in public.

Had they committed this offense in Burnsville, they would have faced the prospect of very harsh consequences. The south metro suburb recently increased the penalty for public urination to a Taliban-esque $1,000 fine and up to three months behind bars.

But since Mike and Shelly had the good sense to do their public peeing in downtown Minneapolis, they were given another option. As an alternative to the usual courtroom spanking (the misdemeanor charge carries a range of penalties in the city), Mike, Shelly, and one other penny-ante offender agreed to make amends under the auspices of Restorative Justice Community Action, Inc.

The nonprofit organization, which has been around for about a decade, strives to "improve neighborhood livability" by having nonviolent offenders such as Mike and Shelly talk about the impact of their crimes with a panel of volunteer community members. Then, by consensus, the group devises a plan for reparation. If the agreed-upon conditions are satisfied—and the offenders keep their zippers up for a year—they are relieved of the burden of a criminal record.

On this night, the citizen panel included Gene, a pink-faced, nattily attired real estate executive who lives and works downtown; Cheryl, a stylish middle-aged woman and veteran of the RJCA; and an affable, long-haired bank employee named Brian Larson. (In exchange for allowing a reporter to observe, all the participants other than Larson insisted that only their first names be used.)

There were also two "facilitators" on hand to direct the discussion and ensure that the proceedings didn't turn into a pissing contest. The meeting took place in the genteel confines of a fifth-floor conference room in the Ryan Companies downtown offices. There were no attorneys, prosecutors, or judges present—just eight people seated in a circle with a dry-erase board to record agreements, and plenty of Oreos and bottled water.

After some preliminary discussions concerning the evening's protocols, the offenders were asked to describe the events that led to their predicament. Shelly explained that on the July night in question, she had been partying at the nightclub Spin. She was, she admitted, "really drunk" by the time of bar close. Once outside, she realized she had to go. With no other options, she found her way to a thicket of bushes near Fifth and Nicollet. To her shock, she was suddenly confronted by a cop in mid-squat. Ticket book in hand, the officer promptly cited her for her urinary tract infraction. Quinn, one of the two facilitators, asked Shelly who, in her opinion, was affected by her criminal act. "I don't think anyone," Shelly offered at first. She paused thoughtfully and added: "Maybe the gardener."

Mike's story was similar. He'd been at a rock show at First Avenue. Like Shelly, he found himself hammered by night's end. Trying to find a cab, he staggered to a nearby parking lot, where he positioned himself behind a van to take a leak. "I didn't think anyone could see me," he explained, a flush of red crossing his face. But, as it turned out, one of Minneapolis's finest spotted this crime mid-stream. Mike was ticketed for public urination and, because the parking lot was posted, trespass.

"What led you to do this?" facilitator Quinn asked. "Alcohol. Lack of judgment," Mike confessed. "It was probably the stupidest thing I ever did." Quinn then asked the citizens for their input and how the offense in question affected the community. Cheryl was the first to pipe up. "I think downtown Minneapolis is the most vibrant place in Minnesota," she opined. "Public urination affects me and a lot of other people. I like nice shoes and I don't want to step in that stuff. And it stinks. I don't like stinky areas." Cheryl proceeded to ruminate on the broken-windows theory—the popular notion that small offenses, left unaddressed, beget more serious crimes.

Brian Larson, the bank employee, nodded at this assessment, as did Mike and Shelly. But Larson had another perspective to add, one based on his experience as a volunteer outreach worker with the homeless. "The streets mean more to them than the rest of us. It really affects their experience," he offered. Facilitator Quinn asked Larson how Mike's crime made him feel. "Just kind of angry," Larson answered in a vaguely indifferent tone.

When his turn came, Gene, who works and lives downtown, said public urination "happens all the time and it's pretty disgusting." (As of last week, Minneapolis police had issued approximately 370 tickets for the offense so far this year). Gene also echoed Cheryl's broken-windows sentiments. After that, the forum turned to the case of a third offender: Mark, a 19-year-old from Atlanta busted on a drug paraphernalia charge. In the ensuing discussion, all agreed that the three offenses in question had one very significant impact: They diverted police attention and resources from more important matters.

After these confessions and ruminations, the facilitators turned to the matter of reparations. What, they asked the lawbreakers, would be the best way to make amends? Mark the pot smoker was first in line. He suggested that he perform 16 hours of community service at the Multiple Sclerosis Society. As it happened, Mike the urinator had some experience working with people with M.S. He figured eight hours of volunteer service there would be a good way to make amends; that and a letter of apology to First Avenue and the owner of the peed-upon parking lot. Cheryl agreed, but thought Mike also ought to put his skill as a graphic designer to work. Mike then offered to gin up a poster. "I was thinking of something like, 'The alley isn't your bathroom.'"

For her part, Shelly offered up her academic skills as a volunteer tutor. Earlier, Shelly had mentioned the problem presented by Minneapolis's lack of public restrooms—a stark contrast, she said, to what she has experienced in her many travels in Europe. For citizen Cheryl, that triggered an idea: Why couldn't Shelly do some research on the viability of building more public bathrooms downtown? The internet-savvy Shelly agreed to cobble together a packet of information on the topic, which she would then submit to the Downtown Council for its consideration.

In the end, the evening was especially notable for the cordial manner in which the proceedings were conducted. Pot smoker Mark even pronounced it "pretty cool." And all three offenders said they were relieved that they had the opportunity to avoid the stigma of a criminal conviction on their records. And for the two public urinators amongst them, Shelly and Mike, there was another reason to be grateful. On the nights of their misadventures, they had the very good sense to steer clear of Burnsville.

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