City Mulls Loitering Crackdown
The city of Portland is considering tougher anti-loitering laws that would make it illegal for people to sit, stand or lie on sidewalks if it could force pedestrians to move around them.
01/24/02 SCOTT LEARN and GORDON OLIVER
Another proposed change to the city's police code would make it unlawful to sit on a public bench if police think it interferes with "the public use or enjoyment" of the bench.
Retail leaders have been lobbying the city to toughen up on street people who sit and lie on sidewalks. But civil rights advocates are attacking the code rewrite, saying that changes would violate constitutional rights and would allow police to selectively enforce laws against the poor.
The city attorney's office began rewriting the code two years ago as a housekeeping measure to eliminate obsolete and confusing language. It gradually evolved, with comments from police and business groups among others, but without formal public discussion.
"If Portland wants to make it illegal to sit on the sidewalk, that's something that needs to be debated, and many views need to be heard on it," said Paul Levy, chief attorney in the Metropolitan Public Defender's misdemeanor section. "My only point is that we not enact this under the guise of housecleaning."
Levy joined attorneys Marc Jolin of the Oregon Law Center and Andrea R. Meyer of the American Civil Liberties Union in a letter sent last week to City Commissioner Erik Sten raising questions about the code rewrite. Sten said he shared their concerns.
The changes are "a major curtailment of what people are allowed to do in this city," Sten said. "The case hasn't been proven to me that this taking is justifiable."
Advocates for the poor said they had raised the issues because they had expected the changes, which are on the city's Web page, to go to the council early next month. The mayor's office denied that any action had been planned for February and said the council wouldn't get the changes until May.
"You don't sneak through a rewrite of one of the city's code chapters, and we wouldn't try," said Sam Adams, Mayor Vera Katz's chief of staff. He said the mayor's office, which oversees the city attorney, had not taken a position.
Seattle has "sit-lie ordinance" But it is unclear just how a housekeeping measure grew into a discussion of the long controversial issue of street behavior. The Association for Portland Progress, a powerful downtown business group, was aware of the process and had asked the city to adopt what is called a "sit-lie ordinance," similar to Seattle's. That measure bars people from lying, sitting or kneeling on a public right of way in a portion of downtown from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
To the business association's frustration, the proposals that the city attorney's office worked into the rewrite don't go that far, but they are more restrictive than present rules.
Other cities are also changing laws that affect street people. In a recent report, the National Coalition for the Homeless documented a growing number of laws the coalition says are designed to harass homeless people for minor infractions. The coalition ranked San Francisco, New York and Atlanta as the top three "meanest" cities. Portland didn't make the top 12.
Police call it a compromise
Portland police say the proposals are a compromise and accused the attorneys of an "end run" around the discussion process that has already taken place. Under existing law, police spokesman Brian Schmautz said, the district attorney's office won't prosecute people blocking the sidewalk without a witness who can testify that they were blocked. The rewrite allows prosecution based on a police officer's testimony, he said.
"Are these major crime problems? No," Schmautz said. "But they are problems for us at certain times, and we just simply want to have the authority to keep traffic flowing."
Tim Greve of Carl Greve Jewelers in downtown Portland, said he didn't know the specifics of the city attorney's proposal and was unaware of the criticisms. But Greve, a member of the Association for Portland Progress board, said he thinks some form of "sit-lie ordinance" is necessary.
"Everybody wants a safe feeling in downtown, and right now a lot of people don't have it," he said. "It's hindering business. It's hindering people wanting to move downtown and live here."
The three attorneys opposing the rewrite raise 14 specific concerns, including:
1. The ordinance increases maximum fines for violations and minor crimes from $500 to $1,000, disproportionally affecting low income people and minorities.
2. It broadens language to make it illegal not only to break the law, but also to attempt, abet, permit or conceal a violation. The attorneys call this provision "an invitation for broad discretionary powers by police."
3. It makes failure to obey a police officer's "reasonable direction" within a park -- which is not defined -- a criminal offense rather than a violation of park rules.
4. It broadens the officers authorized to enforce the city code to include Portland State University security personnel and any police officer employed by federal or state government.
You can reach Scott Learn at 503-221-8564 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can reach Gordon Oliver at 221-8171 or by e-mail at gordonoliver@news. oregonian.com.
link to www.oregonlive.com
Comments from Copwatch:
FYI this ordinance was first noted a few months ago in the Tribune. The full text (138 pages!) is on the city web site, http://www.ci.portland.or.us (Title 14).
So far there's no exhaustive documentation on all the proposed changes. To be sure, these are targeted at the poor, the homeless, and people of color--but certainly demonstrators as well.
Since this isn't going before Council until May, that gives a lot of time to analyze and criticize the changes, but of course, it's never a bad time to say what you think about criminalizing the poor.
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