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Criminal Intent

Some Residents Fear That a City Council Bill Allowing Police to Issue Civil Citations for Minor Offenses Will Wreak Havoc in African-American Communities

By Ericka Blount Danois | Posted 7/30/2003

Tracy Drafts is a 27-year-old West Baltimore resident and a mother of two who lives near the intersection of West Lafayette Avenue and North Gilmor Street. When she appeared before the City Council on July 9 to testify against a proposal to crack down on quality-of-life crimes in Baltimore by treating them as civil offenses, she told a compelling story that reflected the concerns of some city residents who fear that the measure will do more harm than good in poor, inner-city neighborhoods.

Holding the microphone gently, Drafts faced the council members and told them that on July 3 her neighborhood, which is saturated with drug activity, was targeted by city police who terrorized people who were loitering on the street.

"I was sitting outside of my apartment complex, watching my kids outside playing, when I was harassed by two white undercover cops," Drafts told the council. "The cops got out of their cars and told everyone to get on the ground. The cop looked at me and said, 'You, too!'

"I said, 'What do you mean? I live here.' And the cop said, 'You are sitting right there with them [drug dealers]. You mean to tell me y'all niggers can't call the police?'"

Drafts said that the officers forced her and other people loitering in the vicinity to sit on the ground against a wall and threatened to send them to jail. She said she was humiliated as her children, ages 5 and 3, watched her being photographed by the officers. Drafts said when she asked the officer why she was being photographed she was told, "You are in my world right now!" Drafts said it wasn't until she retrieved a piece of mail from her house that proved she lived at an address on the street that the police officer released her with a gruff "You're lucky!"

Despite Drafts' July 9 testimony, the City Council voted in favor of the civil-citation ordinance on July 14. It calls for the issuance of civil citations, punishable with fines, for minor offenses and quality-of-life crimes such as spitting and urinating in public, loitering, and disorderly conduct.

Police are already expected to arrest people who engage in these kinds of crimes. But police Commissioner Kevin Clark hopes to make it easier for officers to deal with these crimes by allowing them to issue civil citations, or tickets, that would require offenders to appear before a judge in civil court, where they would be given fines and/or community service. The change would make it simpler for police officers to identify and ticket for the offenses, avoiding time-consuming arrest procedures. The cases could be presented in civil court, rather than in the overburdened criminal court system, and they would be handled by city solicitors rather than the State's Attorney's Office.

Opponents of the ordinance worry that if the measure is approved again in a final vote before the council (scheduled for Aug. 11) and signed into law by Mayor Martin O'Malley, incidents like the one Drafts described will become more common. Civil libertarians and citizens worry that the bill will encourage police to blanket problem neighborhoods with citations, harassing people who may have no intention of breaking the law and sending people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time to civil court. The ordinance has alarmed activist groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which says that it gives police too much power--and that the power may be used inappropriately and disproportionately, especially in African-American communities. For example, the bill leaves it up to a police officer to determine whether someone should be fined with a civil citation or arrested for certain minor offenses, such as loitering. Bill opponents argue that the application of criminal vs. civil citations may be inconsistent and ultimately unfair--in African-American neighborhoods, they say, there are more likely to be arrests for the same offenses that would earn only civil citations for residents of white neighborhoods.

"It gives the police too much unbridled discretion and authoritative power," Hassan Allen-Giordano, president of Baltimore's Black Citizens Caucus, said at the City Council hearing. "Most criminal cases get thrown out for minor offenses, because they have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. For a civil case, they only have to prove a preponderance of doubt. Which pretty much means if they think you are guilty, then you are. It is zero tolerance dressed up in a new sweater. In 1999, this city voted against zero tolerance."

State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy also expressed reservations about the measure. In a copy of a letter written to the City Council and obtained by City Paper, Jessamy urged council members to rethink the bill: "The last thing our city needs right now is the perception or indeed the reality of citations being issued in one area of the city and an arrest being made in another part of the city for the same violation," she wrote.

"Moving the citations for loitering offenses from the criminal to civil courts will remove the sole existing check on the police department's charging authority--the State's Attorney's power to dismiss the charges, a power the State's Attorney's regularly exercises," David Rocah, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, wrote to Council President Sheila Dixon. "Making the loitering charge a civil offense rather than a criminal offense will mean that the accused has no right to counsel, as would be the cause for a criminal citation."

Council President Dixon first introduced the civil-citations bill to the council on May 5, at the urging of Commissioner Clark. Council members were initially concerned about some of the bill's implications (in an early draft of the bill, for example, officers would have been allowed to ticket juvenile offenders for civil violations); after several amendments the bill was reintroduced, and on July 14 it was passed nearly unanimously; Councilwoman Catherine Pugh (D-4th) abstained.

Clark, who came to Baltimore from the New York City Police Department, borrowed the civil-citations idea from New York, where zero-tolerance and civil-citations practices have been in effect since the tenure of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani's approach to policing in the city was aggressive and controversial, but it was heralded for curbing violent crime. Aggressive policing tactics in New York also brought the city unwanted attention from the media, civil-liberties groups, and activists who say law-abiding citizens--especially African-Americans--have become targets for citations, harassment, stop-and-frisk procedures, and police brutality.

"People are getting stopped for anything," says Djibril Toure, director of the People's Self Defense Campaign for the Brooklyn, N.Y., chapter of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. "Before, the cops had to have a real reason for stopping you. . . . [Now] in New York, people are being chased out of parks, they are being chased out of housing projects. This is happening in communities where there are not a lot of parks or places that people can go with their families."

Politicians in New York refute the notion that these policies have had a detrimental impact on neighborhoods or on minority populations.

"Minorities in the city are being hurt the most by crime, they have been very supportive of these policies," says Peter Vallone Jr., chair of the the New York City Council's public-safety committee and a former Manhattan prosecutor. "These policies have been a huge success here. These quality-of-life crimes are very often gateways to much larger crimes. When we started cracking down on fare evaders, we stopped subway robberies. It has had a huge effect on crime in New York City."

In New York, officers have been encouraged to go on what some residents have dubbed "ticket blitzes." City residents are being ticketed for even the most inconsequential activities: According to New York Times reports, a man sitting on an empty milk crate outside a Bronx hair salon where he worked was fined $105 for "unauthorized use of a milk crate." In Manhattan, a tired pregnant woman was fined $50 for sitting on a railing in a subway station by an officer who claimed she was blocking a stairwell.

Civil-liberty activists in Baltimore are concerned that giving police the unbridled power to routinely stop people for very minor offenses will be a gateway to more aggressive policing tactics. The ACLU of Maryland is urging the city to reject the newly proposed ordinance as misguided and focus on a better plan for curbing civil offenses. "Any concern over the amount of time police officers spend processing arrests for petty crimes is misplaced," the ACLU notes in an alert about the council's plan to pass the bill on Aug. 11. "Police are already charging people with offenses without making an arrest (via a criminal citation). . . . The bill is not an additional deterrent to criminal activity. After all, if drug dealers and prostitutes are not deterred by the prospect of arrest and incarceration that they currently face, it is highly unlikely they would be more deterred by the prospect of a civil fine."

Clark doesn't agree. Kristen Mahoney, director of grants and governmental relations for the Baltimore Police Department, says the commissioner thinks this measure will drive drug dealers off the streets.

"For years the only level of enforcement for Baltimore officers has been arrests, whereas other cities and counties have implemented civil ways of enforcing their laws," Mahoney says. Clark hopes by charging drug dealers these petty fines for things like loitering, they will eventually be compelled to move their business indoors, she says, and thinks that will lead to less crime on the streets and fewer innocent victims of drug-related violence.

"We can watch this bill for five or six months," says Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who originally had reservations about the bill but voted in favor of it on July 14. "If we get a lot of complaints about it, then we get rid of it."

Of course, there are likely to be financial benefits for the cash-strapped city government that could be difficult to ignore when the time for the bill's review comes around. At one hearing on the bill, Councilman Robert Curran (D-3rd) said the cost of the ordinance is estimated to be around $290,000. If police issue the maximum number of citations allowable under the bill--1,000 per month--the monthly revenue would jump to $960,000.

If the bill passes, the council will hold an annual review of the civil-citations policy. It will be automatically discontinued after two years unless the council and the mayor reinstate it.

But Drafts, who had never attended a City Council meeting until July 9, said at the hearing that she does not think the civil-citations law bodes well for communities like hers, where drug dealers and law-abiding citizens must share the same space. She said she fears this bill will encourage the kind of aggressive police tactics that had her lying on the ground in front of her children just a few weeks ago.

"It is all a bunch of bullcrap," Drafts said. "There are so many drug dealers around here. I have been afraid to speak up because a lot of these police are involved in the drug trade, too. They are getting paid off of it. "

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