ACLU to fight law on loitering; Group will argue it abridges the rights of former drug convicts


The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is poised to file a lawsuit against the city of Annapolis, charging that a new anti-loitering law that targets those convicted of drug charges within the last seven years violates their constitutional right to hang out in communities in which it is enforced.

The law, which the Annapolis city council approved by a 5-4 vote Monday, will allow communities to apply for "drug-loitering free zone" status so police officers can ask suspected drug dealers loitering in privately owned areas within those designated neighborhoods to move along. The ordinance states that "known" drug offenders -- defined as those convicted of drug possession, distribution or use in the past seven years -- will be barred from loitering in these designated communities, even if they are not acting suspiciously.

Dwight Sullivan, ACLU staff counsel, said he could not identify the plaintiff because of attorney-client privilege. But he said the man was convicted of drug charges within the past three years and the ACLU plans to file the lawsuit in his name once a drug-loitering free zone is established.

"The ordinance says that just because you have the status of being a convict, you automatically lose your right to stand in a drug-loitering free zone," Sullivan said. "The very moment they designate a zone, there will be many people who cannot stand in a public place in the city of Annapolis who otherwise would have a right to stand in a public place in the city of Annapolis."

Alderman Herbert H. McMillan, who crafted the law, said he was not surprised by the ACLU's plan.

"The ACLU's focus for years has been defending the rights of criminals," said McMillan, a Ward 5 Republican. "It's very different from my focus. My focus is defending the rights of the people who are victimized by criminals. We're going to go ahead and go about our business."

McMillan has come under fire since introducing the anti-loitering bill in May after he heard complaints from Neighborhood Watch leaders that police could not disperse suspected drug dealers on public housing community sidewalks, which are owned by the Annapolis Housing Authority, a private entity.

The law also specifies that police can ask loiterers to move along if their behavior draws suspicion -- for example, if they are repeatedly engaging in conversations with or are making hand signals associated with drug activity to drivers and passers-by.

While Patricia Croslan, executive director of the Annapolis Housing Authority, and the Neighborhood Watch group supported the measure, the ACLU and African-American organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People protested the bill for months, arguing it would give police officers carte blanche to harass all blacks standing on street corners.

"The NAACP wants drug dealers locked up and put in jail, but I see [the loitering law] as an excuse to harass," said Gerald Stansbury, president of the NAACP's Anne Arundel County Chapter, which also is looking into challenging the ordinance. "I don't think that's the intention of police officers, but that's what it will wind up being. That's what it's been in the past. Look at the history."

Alderman Cynthia A. Carter said she voted against the ordinance for that reason.

"When I think of how hard and long we've fought for civil rights given to us, we're just in a bad situation right now," said Carter, a Ward 6 Democrat who is black. "It's a 40-year setback."

But McMillan stressed that the ordinance is not about and does not mention race.

"The opponents had played the race card pretty shamelessly," McMillan said. "They painted it as anti-black. But it had black support on the grass-roots level."

Supporters of the ordinance have begun galvanizing their communities to apply for anti-loitering zone status.

"It will give us a way to cut down on loitering out here in front of our rec center," said Anita Tyler, who is black and president of the residents association at Newtowne 20, a public housing community.

"It's pretty bad out here," she said.

Tyler plans to discuss the issue with the association this week. If her group applies for the designation, the city council will have to approve the application before the zone is established.

Mayor Dean L. Johnson, who voted for the bill, said he hopes the law will be a tool to help residents such as Tyler who have long been frustrated with suspected drug dealers loitering in their neighborhoods.

"Whenever you put in legislation, there's always the potential that it will be followed up by a lawsuit," Johnson said. "But you don't move away from making the decision that either in your heart or your mind has to be made."

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