D.C. City Council member Frank Smith (D-Ward 1) has introduced a bill that would allow police or residents to designate specific sections of the city as "narcotics loitering zones" where people could be arrested for simply lingering on the street.
Smith said the measure was an attempt to curb open drug trafficking in the city.
The bill faces an uncertain future in the council, and it already has been assailed as unconstitutional by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Under Smith's proposal, residents could require police to establish the zones in their neighborhoods by obtaining the signatures of 100 persons living within the Advisory Neighborhood Commission single-member district that covers the neighborhood.
Police could also choose to designate "narcotics loitering zones" without requests from nearby residents.
The areas would be identified by signs posted at all intersections and blocks within the narcotics zone.
The bill defines loitering as "to linger in or around a narcotics zone . . . at a time or in a manner not usual for law abiding individuals." It says persons with a "legitimate interest in commerce or a lawful purpose in communicating with others" would not be subject to arrest.
Anyone arrested for loitering in such areas could be fined up to $300 and given jail terms up to 15 days for a first offense, with penalties as high as $2,000 and six months in jails for three or more convictions.
"We did this bill with the constitutional protection in mind," said Larry Rubin, an aide to Smith.
In a prepared statement, Smith said citizens "feel helpless to do anything" about drug trafficking.
"They feel they cannot walk down their own blocks, as if they were in jail while the drug peddlers run free," he added.
ACLU attorney Liz Symonds said Smith's bill "is vague and overbroad and would permit the police to sweep the streets of many passers-by."
Symonds said the bill fails to define the specific meaning of "to linger."
"Without a specific definition, individuals on the street cannot know whether or not they are breaking the law and the police have unlimited discretion," she said.
"There are already laws to address the serious narcotic-drug problem of the city. Perhaps other laws are needed, but as the Court of Appeals said in 1968, the drug problem cannot be solved 'through techniques that trample on Constitutional rights,' " she added.
Smith's bill has been referred to the council's judiciary committee where it faces some council members reluctant to revive anti-loitering laws that some officials believe were abused in the past.
Council Chairman David A. Clarke, former chairman of the council's judiciary committee, said yesterday that he believed Smith's bill "needs refinement in order to accomplish its purpose."
Clarke said the 1968 appeals court ruling prohibits the city from enacting broad anti-loitering laws.