D.C. Mayor Signs Wide-Ranging Emergency Crime Bill

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty signed into law an Omnibus Public Safety and Justice Emergency Amendment Act of 2008 that toughens a number of laws in an effort to fight violent crime. Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post
By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009

Chronic offenders will receive stiffer penalties, offenses against the homeless are considered hate crimes and police can create temporary loitering-free zones to protect crime-plagued neighborhoods under emergency legislation signed by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty on Thursday.

Fenty (D) signed the Omnibus Public Safety and Justice Amendment Act in front of a handful of journalists and community leaders outside the Kennedy Recreation Center in Shaw, a Northwest Washington neighborhood plagued by break-ins, car thefts and gang violence.

The legislation's many provisions include making text messaging while driving illegal and increasing the penalties for using a stolen vehicle to commit a crime. The bill took several months of negotiations between the Fenty administration and the D.C. Council. There were "lots of different views on how you get to the end game," Fenty (D) said.

The emergency legislation was effective immediately. The council has passed a permanent bill, which Fenty says he will sign, but it needs congressional approval.

Although tensions remain over the council's 9 to 4 vote to reject a provision that would have made it easier to arrest and detain gang members, the mayor and other officials praised the bill, which council members approved unanimously last week. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said the city's hard-core offenders have been warned. "Now we have one more big tool, and we're coming for you," she said.

In an interview, Lanier said the District's crime problems now appear to revolve around stolen vehicles, illegal firearms and repeat offenders -- all issues addressed in the crime bill.

One provision will allow suspects to be detained based on "probable cause." Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said authorities have practically needed a conviction to detain a suspect. "We arrest people who are terrorizing the neighborhood. The next day, they're back on the street," he said. "Judges were very reluctant to keep them. This is going to make it easier."

Repeat offenders, including chronic misdemeanor offenders, will face stiffer penalties. Third and subsequent misdemeanors would become felonies, with the goal of discouraging petty crimes, such as breaking into vehicles, council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said in an interview.

Mendelson, chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, praised the expansion of an anti-loitering law. The provision allows police to keep streets clear of loiterers for 480 consecutive hours in places where a disproportionate number of drug and violent crimes have occurred. Previously, police could clear an area for 240 hours.

"If the police use the loitering provision correctly . . . they can go into an area, like Trinidad, after a series of violent crimes," Mendelson said, referring to the Northeast Washington neighborhood where the use of police checkpoints to combat crime was deemed unconstitutional by the courts. "They can effectively shut it down for 20 days."

But some city leaders remain upset that some council members refused to back an anti-gang measure. The rift was obvious Thursday. Mendelson, who technically authored the emergency bill but also led the fight against the anti-gang provision, was not invited to the signing.

The provision would have allowed a prosecutor to obtain an injunction prohibiting an alleged gang member from associating with known gang members, among other prohibited activities. Some council members compared the provision to racial profiling, and other critics said it would have infringed on civil rights.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alexander Padro said the anti-gang provision was important to neighborhoods such as Shaw. "This bill isn't going to do enough," he said. "Watered down. No teeth."

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