Facing lawsuit, Elkton rescinds loitering law

The Baltimore Sun

The Elkton Town Council voted unanimously this week to rescind an anti-loitering ordinance that became the target of a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The group argued that the statute unfairly targeted homeless people.

The ACLU challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance and sought retribution for an August 2006 incident in which the town cleared a campsite occupied by homeless people behind the Elkton Antique Mall. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of nine homeless men and women who lost their few personal belongings - a family Bible, a grandfather's watch, a birth certificate and more - during the raid.

Deborah Jeon, a lawyer for the Maryland ACLU, said that because of the town's vote to retract the anti-loitering ordinance, the group will drop that portion of the complaint. But the ACLU will still sue Elkton officials for "compensation for the property losses" suffered by the plaintiffs.

"We're also asking for a preliminary injunction against any similar kinds of raids without any notice, without a fair opportunity for people to retrieve their belongings," Jeon said. "Those components of the case will still go forward."

Kevin Karpinski, a lawyer for the town, and Elkton Mayor Joseph L. Fisona did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.

Elkton's feud with area homeless people has pitted neighbors against each other and sparked a conversation about what the town owes its most destitute. Situated in rural Cecil County, Elkton is at first blush an unlikely place for the homeless. But its relatively low cost of living and position off of Interstate 95 near the Delaware border are attractions, local officials say.

The town, population 12,000, is ill-equipped to handle the growing problem. Many residents saluted officials' efforts to keep the refurbished downtown free of vagrants. But advocates for the homeless say that the mayor and council can't simply force out the poor and must instead do more to expand local shelters and provide social services.

"I am grateful that they did repeal that [ordinance]," said Carla Reeves, an Elkton resident who has opened her home to 16 homeless men and women. "However, I still feel that the homeless are going to be in jeopardy here because they're going to do all they can do to do away with them."

Fisona told the Cecil Whig this week that Elkton's attorney had warned that the town could be required to pay for the ACLU's legal fees if the ordinance was struck down in court.

"It is with total regret that we have to do this, but the attorney that was retained for us reviewed the case and recommended we rescind the ordinance," Fisona told the paper. "I'd like to sit down with him later and see if there is anything we can draw up to try and combat the problems the law was intended to address."

The ACLU complaint cited a "disturbing pattern of conduct" aimed at driving the homeless out of town. The Sun reported last month that Elkton Police Chief William E. Ryan wrote the ordinance, which prohibited begging in public places, loitering, congregating or prowling "in a place, at a time or in a manner not usual for law-abiding individuals."

Jeon said the ACLU had precedent on its side. In a 1972 case, the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional a Florida vagrancy statute that the justices said was overly vague. The high court also struck down a Chicago anti-loitering law in 1999 aimed at curbing gang activity.


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