Anti-loiter suit moved

City able to shift ACLU challenge to federal court

4 neighborhoods targeted

Group will argue drug-zone ordinance is unconstitutional

March 21, 2000|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

A lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland challenging Annapolis' anti-loitering law is moving to federal court.

The city of Annapolis, responding to the ACLU's lawsuit filed Feb. 17 in Anne Arundel Circuit Court, successfully petitioned Friday to have the case moved to U.S. District Court in Baltimore. "We would prefer to respond to the lawsuit in federal court rather than state court," said City Attorney Paul G. Goetzke.

The city has 15 days from Friday to answer the lawsuit or file a motion for summary judgment. Goetzke said the city will probably ask for a summary judgment in which both sides agree to the facts of the case and the judge makes a ruling.

Dwight Sullivan, chief counsel for the ACLU of Maryland, said he was not surprised by the city's actions. He said he's prepared to argue that the "drug-loitering free zone" law is unconstitutional and gives police too much power.

"We plan to present our case in whatever terrain the case ends up in," Sullivan said.

The city had 30 days to respond to the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and three Annapolis residents who counsel youth, the homeless and drug abusers.

The much-debated law was passed in October, but the ACLU waited until it was implemented to file a lawsuit.

Annapolis city council granted Newtowne Twenty -- one of the city's 10 public housing developments -- the designation Feb. 14.

The anti-loitering law allows Annapolis neighborhoods to apply for "drug-loitering free zone" status. If the area meets the criteria of having three or more drug-related arrests in the area within a 24-month period and the designation is granted, the ordinance gives police wider discretion to act against loiterers.

Police can move along people whom they suspect of dealing drugs within the designated areas or if the person is a known unlawful drug user, possessor, seller or buyer and is subject to a court order prohibiting his or her presence in an area of high drug activity.

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

On March 13, the council passed resolutions giving the designation to three more neighborhoods -- Robinwood, a public housing complex; the area within 500 feet of 24 Pleasant St.; and within 500 feet of 1003 Monroe St.

Also March 13, the council approved an ordinance amending the law, clarifying that people are in violation of the "drug-loitering free zone" after they disobey a police officer's order to move on. It also further defines drug-related activity.

The amendment also changed a provision that barred known drug offenders -- those convicted of drug possession, distribution or use in the past seven years -- from loitering in designated areas to someone who is under a court order to avoid the area.

Sullivan said the ordinance improves the law, thus proving that the original bill was unconstitutional. But it still gives police too much discretion in determining someone's intent, he said.

"The anti-loitering ordinance continues to allow police officers to order Annapolitans to move along for engaging in such innocent behavior as handing cigarettes to friends or making change for a bus," Sullivan said.

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