Loiter law brings suit

ACLU challenges anti-drug ordinance on NAACP's behalf

February 17, 2000|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Maryland challenged Annapolis' new "drug-loitering-free zones" law yesterday in a lawsuit against the city and its Police Department.

The suit, which had been expected, was filed in Anne Arundel Circuit Court on behalf of the county branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and three residents who counsel youths, the homeless and drug users.

"We want this to move along quickly," Susan Goering, executive director of the ACLU in Maryland, said of the suit, which seeks an injunction -- but not an immediate restraining order -- to preclude enforcement and a declaration by the court that the law is unconstitutional.

The city has 30 days to respond.

The suit was filed in response to an Annapolis city council decision Monday night designating Newtowne Twenty, one of Annapolis' 10 public housing developments, as a "drug-loitering-free zone" -- the city's first implementation of a contentious law passed in October.

The council also introduced resolutions, which could be voted on next month, to place the designation at three other locations -- the Robinwood neighborhood, the area within 500 feet of a residence at 24 Pleasant St., and the area within 500 feet of a residence at 1003 Monroe St.

The anti-loitering law allows Annapolis neighborhoods to apply for "drug-loitering-free zone" status. If the designation is granted, the ordinance gives police wider discretion to act against loiterers.

The ordinance bars known drug offenders -- those convicted of drug possession, distribution or use in the past seven years -- from loitering in designated areas. Police officers can also move along people they suspect are dealing drugs within the areas.

The designation remains in force for two years and can be renewed.

City attorney Paul G. Goetzke said the law has not gone into effect at Newtowne Twenty because signs have not been posted, but officials may wait to see what the court decides. He said he will prepare for the case, but declined to go into more detail.

"The city will file an appropriate response in the time required," he said.

Surprised by NAACP

Alderman Herbert H. McMillan, who introduced the law and resolution, said he was surprised to see the NAACP working with the ACLU against the law.

Several residents of Newtowne Twenty, a predominantly African-American neighborhood, had applied for the designation and met the criteria of having at least three drug-related arrests in a two-year period.

"I think it's sadly ironic," McMillan said, "that the NAACP is fighting this African-American community as it seeks to take back its streets from drug dealers."

Goering agreed that there are drug problems in the community but said the council's anti-drug and loitering law is not the answer. It's unconstitutional and is directed at a class of people, such as those who stay out at night, have dealt drugs in the past or make hand gestures to friends, she said.

"The whole premise is wrong," Goering said. "It's not constitutional, and it's bad public policy."

Officials with the ACLU and NAACP fear that the law is too vague and will give police too much power. It also prevents those convicted of drug offenses in the past seven years from standing in designated areas.

"We have seen over the years that when laws give police too much discretion, all too often they use it to target African-Americans," said Gerald Stansbury, president of the Anne Arundel branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "This ordinance is bound to become a `loitering-while-black' ordinance."

High court ruling

Goering said ACLU attorneys, with counsel from the Washington firm of Swidler, Berlin, Shereff, Friedman, are relying on a Supreme Court decision last year in which a judge struck down Chicago's anti-loitering ordinance prohibiting loitering by "criminal street gang members."

The residents named as plaintiffs are: Larry Griffin, an Annapolis resident and president of We Care, a group of volunteers helping drug addicts; Kenith Dean Jr., who was convicted of a drug offense in 1996 and has since completed treatment and counseled addicts and dealers on the street; and his wife, Parris Lane, who counsels with her husband.

According to the complaint, Griffin, Dean and Lane feel they would have to limit their work in neighborhoods, such as Newtowne Twenty, to avoid arrest and confrontation with the police.

Goering said, in general, courts move quickly on constitutional cases. She said she will meet with the city and ask for an early hearing.

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