Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

January 23, 2007

A Crime That Can’t Be Defined

by Doug Mataconis

It seems that police in Atlanta, Georgia have been arresting a lot of people for violating a law that gives them an extraordinary degree of discretion:

Adrienne Carmichael didn’t understand how little it could take for her 17-year-old son to land in jail on a disorderly conduct charge.

“I thought [disorderly conduct] was if you got out of control with an officer,” she says.

But a broadly worded category of the crime – known as “DC-6″ – has emerged as a heated controversy in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, because it appears to allow police to arrest people simply for hanging out. Residents claim the charge amounts to an excuse for harassment.

DC-6 is the most frequent non-traffic offense cited by Atlanta police. As of Dec. 18, 7,551 DC-6 arrests — about 22 a day — were made in 2006, outpacing criminal trespass at 5,407 and drinking in public at 4,621.

What, you might logically ask, is DC-6 and how can the citizens of Atlanta be sure they aren’t violating it ?

Well, that’s an interesting question:

According to the DC-6 ordinance: “It shall be unlawful for any person [to] … be in or about any place where gaming or the illegal sale or possession of alcoholic beverages or narcotics or dangerous drugs is practiced, allowed or tolerated[.]”

What that means, essentially, is that a person can be arrested simply for being in what police designate as a “known drug area” — even if he or she just walks down the street or chats with a neighbor. That’s problematic, says American Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Gerry Weber, because the law is so ambiguous that it invites discriminatory enforcement and therefore may be unconstitutional.

“It’s one of those catch-all laws that police use when they can’t think of any other charge,” Weber says. “It’s a street-clearing device.”

(…)

A police employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says there’s no official list within the city that would designate a location as a hot spot for illegal activity. Instead, the employee says, identifying known drug areas is “all up to the officer’s discretion.”

And that is precisely the problem. If a criminal statute is so broad that it allows an officer to essentially define a violation by what he sees in front of his or her eyes, there is no way that it can be reconciled with the idea that state has to have probable cause that a crime has been committed before it can even take someone into custody.

H/T: Dvorak Uncensored

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  • http://www.kipesquire.com KipEsquire

    “If a criminal statute is so broad that it allows an officer to essentially define a violation by what he sees in front of his or her eyes, there is no way that it can be reconciled with the idea that state has to have probable cause that a crime has been committed before it can even take someone into custody.”

    It’s called the void-for-vagueness doctrine and it’s a Fifth/Fourteenth Amendment violation of due process, rather than a Fourth/Fourteenth Amendment violation of “probable cause to arrest.” :-)

  • http://kentmcmanigal.blogspot.com/ Kent McManigal

    This is precisely the kind of law the authoritarians like. The ones they can arrest you for violating at any time. I expect more of these types of counterfeit “laws” in the near future.

  • http://antipedanti.wordpress.com Ben

    This makes a lot of sense to me. The only people who will moan about this are those who think we need the “rule of law.” ;-)

  • http://unrepentantindividual.com/ Brad Warbiany

    I understand that an incredible percentage of these cases are just thrown out of court by the judges. If true, it would add credence to the claim that these are just “street-sweeping” laws.

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