Unconstitutional loitering law

Court ruling: City should have known its ordinance was legally weak and potentially costly.

April 03, 2001

IT'S TIME for Annapolis government to cut its losses.

The city foolishly passed an anti-loitering law in 1999, though the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down a strikingly similar Chicago ordinance just months earlier.

Annapolis' bill was intended to stop drug dealers from manning street corners in public housing developments, but it was badly flawed. A majority of aldermen ran through the high court's stop sign, convinced that their legislation would not suffer the same fate as the Chicago law.

They found out the hard way - and probably the expensive way - that they were dead wrong.

U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake, in a strongly worded opinion, found the city's drug-loitering-free zones violated the First Amendment. She said it was "vague and overbroad."

Moreover, the court may order Annapolis to pay legal fees to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, whose lawyers challenged the law on behalf of the Anne Arundel County NAACP.

The legal bill totals more than $200,000, the ACLU says.

The city's potential costs could escalate if Judge Blake's decision is appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which would likely honor the precedent the Supreme Court set in the Chicago case.

Despite this, Alderman Herbert H. McMillan, the bill's sponsor, is remarkably recalcitrant. He wants the city to appeal. Of course, Mr. McMillan's political hopes ride with the anti-loitering law's viability. He recently announced his candidacy for mayor.

His colleagues, though, should exercise judgment that's a little less clouded by politics and drop the case.

Annapolis needs to work with communities to find ways to rid public housing developments of drugs and crime without recklessly running afoul of the Constitution.

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