Bill aims to toughen loitering statutes

Some fear for rights

alderman hopes law hampers drug dealers

May 06, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Alderman Herbert H. McMillan's campaign for the Annapolis city council two years ago took him to public housing communities where suspected drug dealers loitered on street corners.

When he asked what police were doing about it, he was told they couldn't do anything. Police can make loitering arrests only on public property, and the sidewalks are the private property of the Annapolis Housing Authority.

McMillan intends to change that with a bill to redefine public spaces to include public housing property and places such as parking lots and playgrounds that may be privately owned but are open to the public.

"If the police can catch somebody in the act of doing something, they can arrest them," said McMillan, a Ward 5 Republican. "But a lot of people in my public housing neighborhoods would call police about people who are loitering and the police could not address the issue."

McMillan is expecting opposition from people fearful that civil liberties may be trampled upon -- a situation all too familiar to the alderman.

An ordinance he introduced in December to charge event organizers for city-provided police and trash removal services brought dozens of protesters to a public hearing, arguing it would infringe on their First Amendment rights.

McMillan and City Attorney Paul G. Goetzke worked with the American Center for Law and Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union to draft amendments to make the bill more palatable and it was adopted in February.

Now, the ACLU is on guard again.

"Oh boy, Herb McMillan vs. civil liberties, part two," joked Dwight Sullivan, a Baltimore-based ACLU staff counsel.

Turning serious, Sullivan said he is concerned.

"Loitering statutes in and of themselves are troubling," he said. "These statutes tend to criminalize acts that are not in and of themselves bad or dangerous."

But McMillan argues that tighter loitering laws are essential.

"People feel menaced by these groups of people," McMillan said. "Nobody wants to walk near them or around them. The large body of people who live in areas with drug problems will welcome it as a tool that can be used to improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods."

McMillan has several supporters -- Annapolis Housing Authority Director Patricia H. Croslan, Lt. Robert E. Beans, the city police crime prevention coordinator, and several neighborhood watch leaders.

"Nobody wants to see anybody's civil liberties impinged," said Sue Bailey, a neighborhood block watch coordinator in Eastport. "But there's got to be something we can do in Annapolis."

Beans said McMillan's proposal will help because under existing law police can ask loiterers to move along, but can arrest them on private property only if they are blocking pedestrians or vehicles.

"We definitely applaud him for this effort in giving us another tool to work with," Beans said.

Only off-duty police officers working as security guards for the Housing Authority can make loitering arrests on public housing community sidewalks, Beans said. The charge is a misdemeanor and conviction carries a maximum sentence of six months in jail, a $1,000 fine or both.

Even if McMillan's intentions are good and his ordinance clearly states that it is targeting "loitering for drug-related activity," Sullivan said he remains apprehensive.

"How does a cop become a mind reader to know this person is loitering for the sake of engaging in this activity?" Sullivan said. "If somebody's involved in the distribution of drugs, that's already illegal. We don't need a loitering statute to get them."

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