ACLU Challenges Loitering Charges Against Latinos in Prince William County

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 2009

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed paperwork in the Prince William County court system Tuesday, requesting that loitering charges be dropped against three Latinos who were gathered outside their apartment complex.

"We have two problems here," said Rebecca Glenberg, legal director of the ACLU of Virginia. "One is that there appears to be a pattern of using this ordinance to target the Latino community, and two, the loitering ordinance [overall] is unconstitutional."

It was the second time in four weeks the ACLU has acted on behalf of Latinos in the county. A similar motion to dismiss loitering charges filed last month on behalf of four men stated that the county's loitering ordinance is unconstitutional. Both motions are set to go before a Prince William General District Court judge Oct. 27.

The initial motion to dismiss, filed last month, was on behalf of Alberto Miguel Arias, 35; Juan Canseco-Rodriguez, 51; Jesus Velasquez Lopez, 43; and Israel Lopez Amador, 36. The men were charged with loitering May 5 outside Coverstone Apartments in Manassas. Daniel Voss, one of the attorneys for the defendants, said the men live in the complex and were standing on the sidewalk doing nothing wrong.

"These people are paying to live in these apartment complexes and being ticketed to stand outside," Voss said. "What I find so offensive is that the officers obviously walked up with a preconceived idea that they would do whatever they could" to arrest the men.

The motion filed Tuesday is on behalf of Marroquin Dimas Neftal, 36; Jose Raul Garcia Mendoza, 39; and Ramon Aristide Garcia Mendoza, 34. The men, Voss said, also live in Coverstone and were charged July 10 while standing on a grassy area outside the apartment complex.

Loitering is considered a Class 1 misdemeanor and can result in a $2,500 fine and 12 months in jail, Voss said. All the men were released after the incidents. If, however, they had been detained in the jail, they would have been questioned about their immigration status under Prince William's agreement with federal immigration authorities, said Voss, who would not comment on whether the men are in the United States legally.

The motions filed by the ACLU lawyers say that Prince William's loitering ordinance is "unconstitutionally vague" and that portions of it violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits arrests not based on probable cause. If there is only reasonable suspicion that a crime is taking place, law enforcement officials cannot make an arrest, the motion says.

"No one should be subject to arrest simply for standing peacefully on a public sidewalk," Glenberg said. "This ordinance allows police to arrest anyone they deem 'suspicious,' without any evidence of actual wrongdoing."

Prince William police did not respond to requests for comment.

In 2005, the ACLU successfully represented 10 Latino men who were arrested in Woodbridge under the same loitering ordinance. In that case, prosecutors voluntarily dismissed the charges after lawyers filed papers challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance.

"We certainly hope the county will see this as another opportunity to review this ordinance, which we clearly think is unconstitutional," Glenberg said.

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