City asks federal court to dismiss ACLU suit

Challenge to law on loitering says police given too much power

May 17, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel and Amy Oakes | Andrea F. Siegel and Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

The city of Annapolis is asking the U.S. District Court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland that challenges its newly enacted anti-loitering law.

In motions and supporting papers mailed this week, the city also asked the court in Baltimore to remove the local NAACP chapter as a plaintiff -- an action that would leave three Annapolis residents in bringing the suit.

The city passed the measure in October to curb open-air drug dealing, over claims by the ACLU that the law was vague, unconstitutional and gives police too much power.

It allows neighborhoods or residents in an area where multiple drug arrests have been made to seek the designation as a "drug-loitering free zone."

The suit was filed Feb. 14, when the council first applied the law to Newtowne Twenty, one of the city's 10 public housing complexes.

In response, the Annapolis council amended the law in March to clarify its terms, and narrowed its application to known drug offenders who are under court order to stay away from designated areas. The ACLU, in turn, amended its lawsuit to reflect the changes.

The law allows police officers to approach people they suspect of dealing drugs, as well as anyone known as a drug user and subject to a court order prohibiting his or her presence in an area of drug activity.

To be approved for the designation -- which remains in force for two years and is renewable -- neighborhoods must meet certain criteria, including being the site of three or more drug-related arrests in a 24-month period.

Four communities have received the designation, and the council is considering requests from four others. But the city is waiting for the outcome of the lawsuit before beginning enforcement.

The ACLU contends that the law is too broad and will target African-Americans.

"The legislation will clearly have a disproportionate effect on minority communities," Dwight H. Sullivan, chief counsel for the ACLU of Maryland, said yesterday.

City Attorney Paul G. Goetzke said the law does not bar constitutionally protected behavior.

He likened the ordinance to a California law -- used as a model -- that was upheld on state appeal there.

California courts, according to the legal papers he filed, said that acting as a lookout for drug dealers or signaling buyers were illegal behavior that police could cite in telling someone to move.

"Loitering for an illegal purpose is certainly not a fundamental right," Goetzke wrote in a memorandum supporting the motions filed this week.

No date has been set for a judge to hear arguments in the case.

The lawsuit does not make any claim of racial discrimination, and Goetzke said yesterday that the presence of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as a plaintiff "brings an unnecessary element into this case."

He said the law "is completely neutral" racially with regard to who may be told to move.

But Sullivan said the majority of the communities designated as anti-loitering zones are African-American.

"The NAACP has an extremely high level of concern about this law," Sullivan said.

The city is arguing that the NAACP has no reason to be part of the lawsuit -- that neither the nonprofit organization nor its members have been harmed since enforcement has not begun.

"It is inconceivable the NAACP's members will suffer any injuries as a result of future enforcement," the city argues in its brief. The idea that "its members must curtail certain legal activities in which they engage is irrational in light of the plain language of the ordinance," it says.

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