Annapolis' anti-loitering law aimed at drugs is struck down by U.S. judge

Alderman who sponsored law calls ruling `absurd'

March 31, 2001|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

A federal judge struck down yesterday a loitering law aimed at curbing open-air drug markets in the state capital, declaring the law unconstitutional.

Judge Catherine C. Blake of the U.S. District Court in Baltimore upheld the American Civil Liberties Union's arguments that the city ordinance is vague, prohibits constitutionally protected freedoms, gives police officers too much power and could be used disproportionately against African-Americans and other minorities.

"This is a major victory," said Dwight Sullivan, staff counsel for the ACLU of Maryland, which filed the suit in February last year on behalf of the Anne Arundel County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and three city residents.

"It really does go to the essence of our freedom as Americans to stand in public places," he said. "That freedom is no less important to people who live in poorer communities as it is to people who live in affluent communities."

The law - passed by a 5-4 vote of the city council in October 1999 - allows for the establishment of drug-loitering-free zones in areas of the city with more than three drug-related arrests in a two-year period. The city has established eight such zones - most of which are in predominantly black, public housing neighborhoods - but was not enforcing the law pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

The law's sponsor, Alderman Herbert H. McMillan - the Republican from Ward 5 who launched his campaign last week for mayor - said he was not surprised by Blake's ruling, which he called "ridiculous" and "absurd." He vowed to push the city council to appeal the ruling to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, where he said he believed the city had a good chance of winning.

"Once again, the rights of predators have been placed ahead of law-abiding citizens who live in these neighborhoods," he said. "This was a poor decision rendered by another liberal judge who lives in an ivory tower and reads the Constitution through rose-colored glasses."

In her 45-page opinion, Blake said a major flaw in the ordinance is that it lacks a requirement of criminal intent in order for police to make an arrest. Instead, the law specifies that officers can order individuals to move on who "behave in a manner indicating ... the purpose of engaging in drug-related activity" and arrest them if they do not comply.

Among the examples given in the law as indicative of such activity are "hand signals associated with drug-related activity," "distributing small objects to others," "warning others of the arrival or presence of a police officer" and "engaging in a pattern of conduct normally associated by law enforcement agencies with the illegal distribution, purchase or possession of drugs."

Blake said the law gave little guidance to citizens and police officers as to what kind of activity is prohibited and "criminalizes a substantial amount of protected activity."

"The language of the ordinance would subject persons participating in such clearly protected activities as voter-registration drives to orders to move on," she wrote.

Gerald Stansbury, president of the NAACP branch that opposed the law, said his group feared that the law encouraged racial profiling. "You don't see [a drug-loitering-free zone] in downtown Annapolis, and people hang out there all the time," he said. "Whenever you see a group of African-American youths, it's looked upon as a problem."

Sullivan said the ACLU will petition the court to have the city pay its legal fees, more than $220,000.

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