A federal judge struck down Alexandria's anti-drug loitering ordinance yesterday, finding that it could be used to prosecute such constitutionally protected activities as distributing campaign literature or exchanging business cards.
U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton said in his opinion that "the court respects Alexandria's efforts to curb drug trafficking on city streets." But he added that the statute passed by the city in June is overly broad and contains a seven-point definition of a drug sale that could be applied to legal activities.
"Any person engaging in conduct meeting the specified circumstances is deemed to possess the requisite intent to engage in an unlawful drug transaction, regardless of actual purpose," Hilton wrote.
Victor M. Glasberg -- who represented the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and 15 residents who challenged the statute on several constitutional grounds -- was clearly pleased by the ruling, but said there were no winners in the case.
"This is not a victory of anybody over anybody else. It is a victory for the Constitution," Glasberg said.
"The plaintiffs will be the first to work with the community and the city to devise permissible means for dealing with the drug scourge," he added. "There's no reason it can't be done."
Alexandria Mayor James P. Moran Jr., a Democrat who is opposing Republican Rep. Stan Parris for the 8th District Congressional seat, said the ruling represented a serious setback. Arguing that loitering laws are effective tools against open-air drug markets, Moran said the city would either appeal the decision or revise the statute.
"The worst setback is to the lawful citizens living in these drug-infested neighborhoods, who are in desperate need of support from the criminal justice system," Moran said. "And instead, the criminal justice system continues to look for ways to protect the drug dealer." The City Council first adopted the anti-drug loitering law in April,
-- Philip G. Sunderland
ment's arsenal in the war on street crime.
The ordinance, which city officials said was never enforced, permitted police to arrest on a misdemeanor charge anyone who participated in seven actions, including standing in a public place for 15 minutes, contacting at least two people and appearing to conceal or exchange small items.
The ordinance was vigorously debated by residents and community groups.
Some residents welcomed additional law enforcement, while other community groups argued that the ordinance recalled an era when loitering laws were used against black residents. They said it could be used to harass residents who were merely greeting neighbors.
Hilton said Alexandria's law differed from loitering statutes that have been constitutionally upheld precisely because it "delineates seven circumstances that unequivocally manifest an unlawful purpose."
Other statutes merely prohibit "loitering with an unlawful purpose" that would be investigated by police, according to Hilton's ruling.
City Attorney Philip G. Sunderland said the city intended the seven-point guideline to be a safeguard against improper arrests. "Using the court's reasoning, we would have been much better off deleting the safeguards, and just saying that it is illegal to loiter with the intent to engage in a drug activity," Sunderland said.
Glasberg said there are more effective ways to fight drugs than loitering statutes, which he said invite abuse of the First Amendment right to assemble.
"The drug plague must be approached from the standpoint of economic and educational opportunities addressing the needs of a wasted generation that has no reason not to engage in drugs for profit and for solace," Glasberg said.