The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia is urging county officials to drop plans for new restrictions on adult-theme businesses, saying the proposal would be unconstitutional and is "virtually an invitation to litigation."
The Board of County Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution last week that calls for Prince William to prepare new rules that would make it much tougher for new businesses such as strip clubs and adult bookstores to locate and operate in the county.
There are only about four such businesses in Prince William, down from about six last September, when board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R-At Large) first suggested the crackdown.
"These types of businesses do not have a major presence in the county right now. But if we're going to do anything, now is the time to do it, before one tries to set up shop and the community responds," Connaughton said.
Supervisors approved a resolution that calls for staff to draft a zoning amendment that would prohibit such businesses from within 500 feet of residential districts, schools, parks and churches.
The plan would also require business operators to apply yearly for a special permit from the county's police chief that includes personal information, a photograph, fingerprints, references and permission to run a criminal background check.
It would also prohibit signs with words or graphics relating to "specified sexual activities or specified anatomical areas."
That language would appear to rule out Hooters, which is planning to open a restaurant on the Prince William Parkway. The Hooters name can be construed as an allusion to anatomical parts, which are depicted as an owl's eyes in the restaurant's logo and signs.
Connaughton said Friday that the restaurant chain would not be considered an adult business under the proposal. "We're proposing that so we don't end up having some garish or offensive signage that visitors will see," he said.
The ACLU of Virginia is objecting most strongly to a provision that would require businesses to have video cameras in the store, at its entrances and parking lots, with the cameras providing "clear imagery of the establishment's patrons and their vehicles." The videotapes would be required to be kept for four months and be available for inspection by county police, planning and public works officials.
"The scope of the invasion of privacy here is staggering," wrote Rebecca K. Glenberg, the ACLU of Virginia's legal director. "Even with no reason to believe that an adult business owner or patrons are engaged in illegal activities, police have carte blanche to snoop into the private business of individual citizens."
Glenberg said the proposals appear to violate Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures and First Amendment rights to receive information with privacy and anonymity.
"The proposed 'adult businesses' ordinance fails constitutional scrutiny in a multitude of ways and is virtually an invitation to litigation," Glenberg wrote to Connaughton.
In a telephone interview Friday, Glenberg said her organization has not ruled out challenging the provision itself.
"It really depends on what the final language turns out to be, and we will study it carefully in whatever form it is passed," Glenberg said. "We would also need a client, of course."
The Prince William proposals are modeled on similar ordinances in Henrico and Chesterfield counties and elsewhere. Some of these laws are being challenged on constitutional grounds.
The proposal now goes to county staff for research and legal review. The proposed zoning changes would also go to the Planning Commission and the zoning ordinance review committee before going back to supervisors.
"This is now the very front end of the process," County Executive Craig S. Gerhart said last week. "And whatever we come back to the board with will have absolutely the full benefit of the recommendations of the county attorney, and we will try to make sure that whatever we take to the board will be as legally defensible as we know how to make it."
Connaughton said that the process will work itself out over the coming months and that the proposal will be tweaked to accommodate the concerns of county lawyers and other supervisors.
As for the local politics of the issue, Connaughton acknowledged there are worse things to happen to a politician than to be taken to task by the ACLU.
"Well, Prince William County is a conservative community, and I would assume there are more of our citizens who are not members of the ACLU than are," Connaughton said.