Prince William drops ‘vague’ loitering charges against Latino men
The Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney has dropped charges brought against four Latino men who were arrested for loitering while merely standing on a public sidewalk near their apartment complex in Manassas.
The ACLU of Virginia, which represents the four men, argued that the charges should be dismissed because the ordinance -which makes it illegal to loiter “under circumstances which justify a reasonable suspicion that such person may be engaged in, or is about to engage in, a crime, or with the purpose of begging”- is unconstitutionally vague.
In 2005, the ACLU successfully represented 10 Latino men who were arrested in Woodbridge under the same loitering ordinance. In that case, charges were also voluntarily dismissed after court papers were filed challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance.
“This is the second time that this county, after making mass-arrests of apparent day laborers under its facially unconstitutional loitering statute, and after having been confronted with a constitutional challenge to that ordinance, has simply decided to back down and dismiss the charges rather than defend the ordinance,” said Manassas attorney Daniel L. Voss, who is working with the ACLU on the case. “Given that, it would be hard to conceive of any continued enforcement as anything other than bad faith.”
“The problem with vague laws like this is that they give the police the latitude to interpret them however they choose,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg. “And that invariably leads to enforcement practices that reflect societal biases against ethnic minorities and other disfavored groups.”
The men who were arrested were part of a group standing on the sidewalk outside Coverstone Apartments in Manassas last spring when police officers asked to see IDs. Those who were unable to show they were residents of the apartments were charged with trespassing. Those who could show residency at the apartments were charged with loitering.
“People of all races and nationalities should be able to stand on the sidewalk minding their own business without fear of harassment or arrest,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “That is precisely what the First Amendment’s right to assemble and the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to equal protection stand for.”
Glenberg, Daniel L. Voss and Mark R. Voss represent the defendants. The ACLU’s court papers are at: http://www.acluva.org/newsreleases2009/motiondismissloiteringpwc.pdf.