Who is Mary Amil? To Marsha Garland, former executive director of the North Beach Chamber of Commerce, she is a veteran fortune teller who has operated her Columbus Avenue business since the 1980s. To Aaron Peskin, former supervisor for that neighborhood, she is a community staple, a city resident for 45 years whose husband, Robert, heads the San Francisco Romani Association.
The San Francisco Police Department did not dispute those assessments in 2003, when it studied her application for a fortune-telling permit, took her fingerprints, ran a criminal background check, then granted her the license.
But, a decade later, Mary Amil's identity became a point of contention, the central issue facing the San Francisco Board of Appeals during a February hearing. She had applied for a new fortune-telling license in 2010 to replace an expired one. The SFPD denied her. Because it said that it could not confirm her identity. And so began another round in the age-old bout between common sense and bureaucratic rigidity.
San Francisco first began regulating fortune-telling in 2003 — the District Attorney's office had pushed for legislation to help prevent fraud. Peskin, whose North Beach district housed a good chunk of the city's fortune tellers, wrote the bill, working with Robert Amil to craft policy that would satisfy the Romani community, for whom fortune-telling is part of the culture. The final product was a permitting process that allowed the police department to investigate applicants and track down any fraudsters in the industry.
So Mary — along with many other fortune tellers — got her permit and continued practicing her profession. And everybody moved on.
After five years, her permit expired. If she had simply renewed it before the expiration date, there would have been no problem. But she missed the deadline, meaning she had to re-apply for a new permit. This proved complicated.
The SFPD would not accept her application because her DMV-issued ID card had also expired. And she was unable to renew that because of a 2005 federal law that now required her to present a birth certificate. But Amil did not have a birth certificate. Mary, like many Romani, was likely born at home. (She suspects in New York City.) Her mother, an Italian immigrant, lived somewhat off the grid (not unlike her Gypsy ancestors). The result was a lack of documentation. “This is an extremely common situation for Romani Americans,” says Ian Hancock, a professor of Linguistics at the University of Texas-Austin and author of We Are the Romani People.
The SFPD argued that it was simply following the letter of the law. At the Board of Appeals hearing in February, Capt. Mark Osuna, who is also an attorney, asserted that the department couldn't approve an application for someone unable to acquire a valid, unexpired government-issued ID.
“If she can't get that, how can the police department feel comfortable issuing her a permit or conducting an investigation?” he said during the proceedings. “We believe that a proper investigation starts with knowing who a person is.”
The police, of course, knew her well enough in 2003 to issue the permit in the first place. “If her fingerprints from 2010 line up to the fingerprints from 2003, wouldn't it be safe to assume it's the same human?” asked Chris Hwang, the board president.
“No, it would not be,” Osuna replied, explaining that the fingerprint process wouldn't confirm her identity if she had given a fake name from the start, in 2003. “Just because the appellant was able to get an ID under a looser standard, less rigorous, doesn't mean the police department should accept that now,” he reiterated.
The department, however, was not just sticking to the letter of the law, it was creating its own definition of what counts as a “government-issued” ID.
A week before the hearing, Amil got a medical marijuana card, issued by the State Department of Health Services and the San Francisco County Department of Public Health. But the SFPD didn't accept that either because, as Osuna explained to the Board, “the standards are really loose.”
In the end, the Board of Appeals overturned the denial. The fortune-teller permit policy does not require unexpired identification, Hwang concluded. And even if it did, she added, the medical marijuana card should have been sufficient ID anyway.
To Amil's lawyer, Barry Fisher, her plight was as philosophical as it was legal.
“This was really quite existential, a Sartre-type inquiry,” he says. “The card might expire, but your identity doesn't.”