Council protects law on loitering

Opponents charge city is desperate to save flawed measure

June 13, 2000|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,STAFF WRITER

In a move to strengthen its defense against a lawsuit challenging its new anti-loitering law, the Annapolis city council has amended the ordinance again - this time adding its rationale for adopting the law.

The council's move could bolster the city's chances in U.S. District Court, some say, where it's in the early stages of battling a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

The city's finding, added last week, states that the law is intended to fight unlawful drug-related activity in "drug-loitering free zones."

But an ACLU official said yesterday that the finding will not help the law, which he said is vague, unconstitutional and gives police too much power.

"These findings are just a transparent attempt to hide a flawed ordinance," said Dwight H. Sullivan, chief counsel for the ACLU of Maryland, adding that a law's rationale is often presented when the ordinance is first introduced.

According to the finding, the city "finds and declares that the illegal manufacture, distribution, possession, and administration of drugs and other unlawful drug-related activities in public and private open spaces in the City of Annapolis is an evil of substantial and urgent proportions constituting a clear and present danger to the citizens of Annapolis."

Alderman Herbert H. McMillan, the Ward 5 Republican who drafted the "drug-loitering free zone" law, said he didn't know the finding was needed, but added that "most ordinances aren't challenged in the court."

"It would help to strengthen the record as it's reviewed by the court," McMillan said.

The anti-loitering law was narrowly passed in October and amended in March. It allows police officers to approach - and move along - 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 designated as a "drug-loitering free zone."

To qualify for the renewable, two-year designation, 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. The city is waiting for the outcome of the lawsuit before beginning enforcement of the law.

Many in the African-American community have protested the ordinance, saying it unfairly targets them. The majority of the neighborhoods that have applied for the designation are predominantly African-American.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and three Annapolis residents in Anne Arundel Circuit Court on Feb. 14, shortly after the council approved the first designation to Newtowne Twenty.

The case was later moved to U.S. District Court.

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.

Last month, the city filed motions asking to have to the case dismissed or the local chapter of the NAACP removed as plaintiff, claiming that the lawsuit does not make any claim of racial discrimination. The ACLU is preparing a response.

Alderman Sheila M. Tolliver voted against adopting the finding because there are other laws that outlaw drug activity.

"It says we have a drug problem, and I agree, but it says the only way to solve it is with the loitering law," said the Ward 2 Democrat.

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