The Annapolis city council narrowly passed last night a bill that allows police officers to arrest loiterers suspected of sidewalk drug activity in public housing communities.
After almost an hour of debate, during which several aldermen carefully articulated their reasons for supporting or opposing the measure, the council voted 5-4 to approve the bill.
The bill, which requires communities to apply for "anti-drug loitering zone" status before it can be enforced, has won the support of Annapolis Housing Authority executive director Patricia Croslan and Neighborhood Watch block captains.
But several black community groups and the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union have assailed the measure since its introduction in May. More than 30 opponents, wearing "Vote No" stickers, showed up last night to impress upon the council that they think the bill gives police officers carte blanche to harass blacks standing on sidewalks.
"We're very disappointed," Dwight Sullivan, staff counsel of the Maryland ACLU, said after the vote. "It's sad that they voted for this bill. It is clearly unconstitutional. We will certainly challenge it."
Alderman Herbert H. McMillan, a Ward 5 Republican, drafted the bill after Neighborhood Watch leaders complained to him that police could not disperse suspected drug dealers from public housing community sidewalks, which are the property of the Annapolis Housing Authority, a private entity.
McMillan's bill redefines public space to include public housing community sidewalks and other private property accessible to the public, including grocery store parking lots.
The bill permits police officers to ask "known" drug users -- defined as those on probation for or convicted within the previous seven years of drug possession, distribution or use -- to disperse or be arrested in designated zones.
Under the bill, police are permitted to disperse loiterers engaging in suspicious behavior such as repeatedly engaging in conversations to passers-by or drivers, or making hand signals to them that are associated with drug activity.
The council's Public Safety Committee, which reviewed the bill, advised against passing it. Alderman Ellen O. Moyer, who spoke on behalf of the committee, said it thought the bill would "usurp the time of arresting officers that could be better used investigating and arresting" drug traffickers.
Moyer also questioned the constitutionality of McMillan's bill in light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down a Chicago anti-gang loitering ordinance.
The Supreme Court decision "guarantees a challenge" to the Annapolis bill, Moyer said. "The challenge to the constitutionality of [the measure] could go on for years, impacting public funds and draining the resources of the city's legal department."
McMillan said he worked with City Attorney Paul G. Goetzke in an attempt to ensure that the bill met constitutional requirements. He said he wants to give police officers a tool to help constituents who have complained to him about suspected drug dealers loitering on sidewalks in front of their homes.
"It does little good to expose a child to the beauties and possibilities of life at school, only to have him return to a neighborhood that has been destroyed and rendered unsafe by open-air drug markets," McMillan said before last night's vote. "We are not going to let that happen."