Withdrawal of loitering bill urged

Foes say ruling by Supreme Court invalidates it

McMillan stands by bill

It would include private property and public areas

June 11, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for an Annapolis alderman to withdraw his anti-loitering bill yesterday, saying the Supreme Court's decision yesterday that a Chicago loitering law is unconstitutional would invalidate the proposed Maryland law, too.

The Chicago ordinance prohibited people who police "reasonably believe" to be gang members from "loitering in any public place with one or more persons." A divided Supreme Court struck down the "Gang Congregation" law, calling it vague and saying it gave police unbridled power to order loiterers to disperse.

The ACLU of Maryland and NAACP's Anne Arundel County branch said the ruling also strikes down Annapolis Alderman Herbert H. McMillan's bill, which targets people loitering for the purpose of drug-related activity.

McMillan said he will not back down.

He crafted the bill after hearing residents in his Ward 5 complain that police have no power to arrest suspected drug dealers loitering on private property such as grocery store, parking lots or the sidewalks of public housing communities. Under his proposed ordinance, the definition of public space would expand for police seeking to arrest loiterers whom they suspect of drug activity to include private property accessible to the public. Since McMillan introduced the bill last month, it has been attacked by ACLU leaders, who have said it would infringe on citizens' civil liberties. Black community leaders have also protested, saying the bill would give police officers power to harass all blacks standing on street corners.

"The Supreme Court has said that the principal defect of the Chicago ordinance was that it provided police officers unbridled discretion," said Dwight Sullivan, ACLU staff counsel. "That is precisely what this bill offers. To tell a police officer, `You have the right to move people along,' that is fundamentally at odds with the concept of liberty in the United States."

The organizations banded together after the Chicago ruling to pressure McMillan to withdraw his bill, which will be discussed during a City Council public hearing June 21.

McMillan, a Republican, said he will not withdraw the bill.

"They're going to try to spin that the Chicago gang loitering ordinance is the same as my drug loitering ordinance, but it's not," McMillan said. "Chicago's ordinance is much harsher than the one I proposed and gave a lot more police discretion than the one I've proposed.

"In the Chicago ordinance, if you were in the presence of a gang member who's loitering, you could be arrested. This bill gives guidelines that clearly determine whether you are loitering for the purpose of drug-related activity. I'm open to amendments. We can still make this law work."

Sullivan said there is "no middle ground" in McMillan's bill.

"The very concept of loitering is objectionable," Sullivan said. "Either we're going to say that people have a right to stand in public places or we're going to say that people don't have the right to stand in public places."

Lewis Bracy, a spokesman for the Maryland Forum for African American Leaders who has protested the bill, said that if police officers suspect someone of drug dealing, they should be able to arrest the person on drug charges without needing a loitering ordinance.

"I would hate to know that two cops can see somebody selling drugs in [Annapolis public housing community] Robinwood and say, `We can't arrest them because they're on private property,'" Bracy said. "We're hoping right now that he'll have the intelligence to can the whole idea. If he does, that at least shows the Darwin principle applies to him."

City Attorney Paul G. Goetzke briefly studied the Chicago decision yesterday and said he doesn't think it "strikes down every conceivable loitering statute."

He pointed out that the nine justices were divided on the issue in the 6-3 vote and noted that one section of the decision says that giving police authority to disperse loitering gang members "would no doubt be sufficient if the ordinance only applied to loitering that had an apparently harmful purpose or effect."

The Chicago law states that loitering gang members can be arrested for merely standing around with "no apparent reason."

"This decision is too closely tied to the gang member element that I have my doubts that it would invalidate Alderman McMillan's ordinance under all circumstances," Goetzke said.

Sullivan said he will testify against McMillan's ordinance at the public hearing and urge the Annapolis City Council not to approve it.

"If they decide to pass it," he said, "then we'll sue."

Pub Date: 6/11/99

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