At a couple of mini-parks near my house, homeless men sometimes gather to chat. They occasionally get a little loud, occasionally ask me for a cigarette. (Yes, I’m one of those unregenerate smokers.) I don’t feel comfortable sitting on benches next to them. Should I have a right to recruit a few like-minded pedestrians and sue to get an injunction against their gatherings?
What about my former neighbor? She didn’t like working in her front yard because kids from the nearby public housing project hung out on the corner and sometimes made rude remarks. Dropped used fast food containers near her front walk too. Should she have had a right to pull together some sympathetic neighbors and sue to keep them from stopping at our corner?
What about the day laborers who gather in the parking lot at Home Depot in hopes of getting picked up by a construction crew? Should those who have to steer around them have a right to seek a court order against this approach to finding work?
What about homeowners who think the newcomers down the street bring down the tone of the neighborhood by relaxing with a couple of beers on their own front porch?
These are not fantastical what-ifs.
Part of a proposed amendment to the District’s Omnibus Public Safety Amendment Act would permit any community group of any size to file a civil action against these groups as constituting a “public nuisance.” The court could then issue an order to “abate, enjoin and prevent” it. Violation of the order could lead to a fine or imprisonment.
And not groups only. Any individual perceived as interfering with “the quiet enjoyment of life and property” by any group purportedly organized for the benefit of the community could be subject to such a lawsuit.
We can see what the cosponsors of the bill–Councilmembers Jim Graham and Jack Evans–may have had in mind. Some types of behaviors the bill specifically names really ought not to be performed in public places–relieving one’s self, engaging in sexual acts, going around without any clothes on. And, as a Washington City Paper blog reports, there’s some constituent pressure to outlaw loitering.
But we’ve already got laws against indecent exposure, public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and the like–even a law against loitering for drug-related purposes. We’ve got police officers and prosecutors to enforce these laws.
By contrast, the language of the Graham-Evans amendment is way over-broad and an open license to harass and displace homeless people and others who are already socially and/or economically disadvantaged.
If you agree, take a moment to drop a line to DC Councilmembers. DC Jobs With Justice has a good prefab e-mail you can use.