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Anti-Loitering Law Aimed at Stopping Street Drug Dealing : Crime: The ordinance, approved by two cities, prohibits lingering in areas known for illicit sales. The ACLU says it could lead to 'fishing expeditions' on people who live in poor neighborhoods.

April 15, 1993|EMILY ADAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SOUTHEAST AREA — A new legal tool designed to push the drug trade off city streets is gaining momentum in several Southeast-area communities.

Two cities this week approved ordinances making it illegal for people to loiter in areas known for drug use or sales, and three other cities are considering similar ordinances. The law, drafted by the Sheriff's Department, also targets "lookouts" for drug dealers, said Capt. John Anderson of the Lakewood sheriff's station.

"This will allow trained officers to take a person off the streets, a person we might not have been able to get before," Anderson said. He has urged cities served by the Lakewood station to approve the ordinance.

The anti-loitering law was approved Monday by the Bellflower City Council and takes effect May 12. Artesia's City Council has tentatively approved the same ordinance, and officials in Lakewood, Paramount and Hawaiian Gardens said they are considering the proposal.

This addition to cities' anti-drug law arsenals has its detractors, including the American Civil Liberties Union and one Bellflower council member.

"It's a powerful tool for sheriff's deputies," Councilwoman Ruth Gilson said. "But it could be a problem for people living in areas with drug problems, and a lot of us are forced to live in these areas for economic reasons."

But the council members approved the ordinance on a 4-1 vote.

"It's time to get tough," said Mayor Bob Stone, responding to Gilson's objections at the Monday council meeting. "That kind of liberal thinking got our country in the trouble we're in."

According to the ordinance, a person can be arrested for loitering and being a known drug user, for being suspected of acting as a lookout for a drug dealer, for transferring small packages in a furtive fashion or for running from sheriff's deputies.

Most disturbing to Gilson and the ACLU, however, is that a person can be arrested for being in an area known for drug use and sales, for being within six feet of a vehicle registered to a known drug offender or for being on property suspected of drug activity.

The maximum sentence for violating the law will be one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

"The burden of this law will fall on the lowest socioeconomic class," said Alan Friel, an ACLU attorney, who warned that authorities could use the law as an excuse to conduct "fishing expeditions on poor people who just happen to live in areas with street-level drug activity. It's not their fault they don't live in Beverly Hills, where drugs are dealt in mansions instead of on the street."

But Capt. Anderson said the law also requires that officers undergo special training before making arrests.

Officers from gang enforcement, narcotics and Operation Safe Streets, plus deputies specially assigned to Bellflower, will all be given four hours' training in recognizing drug users, dealers and lookouts, Anderson said.

The training clause also exists in the Artesia ordinance and in the draft laws being considered by Lakewood and Paramount.

"They won't be stopping someone just for standing by a car and nothing else," Anderson said.

But even with officers given specific training in the drug-loitering statute, Gilson said she is concerned that law-abiding teen-agers may be stopped just for wearing strange clothes "and acting weird, like teens do. We also don't want to give a good kid a (criminal) record for hanging out around his own home.

"And what happens when the captain leaves or the policy is changed? Where's the guarantee this law won't be misused?" Gilson said.

The anti-loitering law is patterned after a 1990 Monrovia ordinance. The law was challenged by a man convicted of loitering near drug-related activities, but the California Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

A different anti-loitering law was approved Tuesday by the Downey City Council to crack down on drug and gang activity.

Under the Downey law, if a property owner gives prior consent, police have the authority to arrest loiterers for trespassing at apartment buildings or other private properties posted with "no trespassing" signs. The law also gives police authority to ban for 24 hours individuals from loitering at gas stations and shopping centers.

The Downey measure gives police more authority than state trespassing laws, which prevented police from arresting loiterers who leave a property after police arrive.

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