The D.C. City Council tentatively approved yesterday an anti-loitering bill that would make it unlawful for prostitutes or drug dealers to "repeatedly" beckon to passing motorists or "repeatedly" try to talk to passersby.
The legislation, backed by Logan Circle community groups increasingly concerned by prostitution in their neighborhood, received the unanimous approval of the council despite opposition from the city's police department and civil liberties groups.
"The situation has gotten totally out of control," said council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) in explaining the council's action. "It's making the neighborhoods a real sore spot. This will give the police the tools they need to make arrests."
The police department, however, testified against the bill at a public hearing in June, saying that the proposal would not give them any new powers of arrest. It has also drawn stiff opposition from the Amercican Civil Liberties Union, one of whose lawyers labeled it "probably useless" -- if not outright unconstitutional.
"It the bill doesn't make any sense," Richard A. Brooks, deputy general counsel to the police department said yesterday. "At first blush, this is one of the bills that sounds like it's giving the police something, but it really isn't. And it could only complicate or exacerbate law enforcement."
The bill's opponents had raised two basic objections, neither of which was addressed during yesterday's brief debate. On the one hand, they said, if the new law allows police officers to make arrests for the mere acts of "wandering" or "repeated beckoning," it would probably violate the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.
On the other, they argued that, by requiring evidence of prostitution -- either through solicitation or an offer to an undercover officer -- and by incorporating the words "repeatedly" beckoning and "repeatedly stopping" in the city's prostitution statute, the new bill could end up actually complicating the policeman's job.
"Instead of proving one offense, you could have to prove repeated offenses," Brooks said.
Judiciary Committee chairman David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), whose panel had considered the measure, stressed yesterday, however, that such was not the bill's intent. He said it only prohibits wandering or beckoning if done "for the purposes of" prostitution or drug dealing.
"It's not going to prohibit somebody from standing on the corner and waving," he said.
The bill, which must win approval of the council one more time and then be signed by Mayor Marion Barry before it can become law, also raises the maximum fine for prostitution from the current $250 to $300. But Brooks said this will also have almost no effect because "judges don't give them (prostitutes) the maximum fine right now."
Because of the generally "liberal" attitude of most judges, he said, the average current fine for prostitution is only $25.
Ron Drake, one of the Logan Circle community residents who led neighborhood support for the bill, said yesterday he was pleased with the council's action.
Drake said that the areas around 12th and 11th and O streets NW are flooded with drug dealers "who are repeatedly standing and waving cars down -- and you know they are not waving at their wives or hailing a cab."
The police have told us that this does not constitute grounds to arrest them," said Drake, vice president of the Logan Circle Community Association. "I wish the ACLU would start considering the constitutional liberties of those of us who have to live through this ...Our lives are in jeopardy."