Eugene Weekly : News : 8.14.08

Preconviction Zone
City to ban hundreds of people from downtown
By Alan Pittman 

The city of Eugene plans to ban more than an estimated 225 people from downtown as punishment for alleged minor crimes — such as possession of a marijuana joint or giving a 20-year-old a beer — before those people are convicted.

The Eugene City Council voted 5-3 on August 11 to pass the ordinance punishing alleged, first-time offenders with a 20-block exclusion zone.

Human rights activist Melissa Mona testified before the vote that the police would use the new “unconstitutional” law to target the mentally ill and homeless downtown. “We’re trying to find a way to keep these people out of the way because they make us uncomfortable,” she said.

But Sylvia Furticks called on the council to “eliminate the vagrancy” downtown and “establish order.” 

The ordinance includes a long list of alleged offenses subject to a 90-day exclusion order before a criminal conviction. The list includes more serious drug offenses, criminal mischief and assaults but also includes minor offenses such as possessing less than an ounce of marijuana, furnishing alcohol to a minor, “tampering or interfering” with another’s property without damaging it, making insults intended to spark violence and urinating or defecating in public.

Eugene Municipal Court Judge Wayne Allen estimated that 225 people would be subject to the exclusion ordinance, but that was before the council significantly lengthened the list of offenses punishable by the ordinance.

A municipal court judge could decide to impose the exclusion before a criminal conviction based on a “preponderance of evidence” from police. That’s a far lesser standard than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” required for a criminal conviction. Also, defendants will not be provided attorneys if they can’t afford them, a constitutional right in normal criminal cases.

The city could jail, for up to 90 days, a person who violates the exclusion order. Before the ordinance, getting caught with a joint could result in a ticket; now, it could result in a three-month jail term. Holding a prisoner costs taxpayers an estimated $350 a night. 

Claire Syrett of the Oregon ACLU testified against the ordinance, warning that similar exclusion laws have been ruled unconstitutional or repealed after discriminatory enforcement in other cities.

“To punish people who have not been convicted of a crime is inconsistent with everything we stand for in this country,” said Councilor Bonny Bettman.

The city’s private law firm, which bills by the hour, has said it can defend the city against court challenges to the ordinance.

Liora Sponko, chairman of the WOW Hall board, said her organization “strongly opposes” the ordinance. She said it will deter young people from attending WOW Hall concerts “for fear of being excluded due to their appearance and age.”

Councilor Betty Taylor said the city should respond to the street people problem with a homeless shelter, youth center, restrooms, mental health care and other social services. “Sure, something needs to be done, but we’re talking about a solution that doesn’t fix anything,” Taylor said.

Taylor said the “unjust” exclusion ordinance will just move the problem from one part of downtown to another. “The people who are excluded will not disappear.” She said those jailed for violating the ordinance will be released quickly from the overcrowded facility, and she said that all the violations in the ordinance are already illegal. “We need to enforce the laws we already have.”

Councilor Mike Clark praised Realtor Betty Snowden for leading the effort to pass the exclusion ordinance. Snowden owns a downtown building that she optioned last year to sell to the city for $2.2 million, four times its county-appraised “real market value,” but the development deal fell through. Snowden testified in favor of an even stronger ordinance, saying she had been “called a nigger” and threatened by street people “time and time again.”

But it’s unclear if the exclusion ordinance will do much to address Snowden’s complaints. 

“We have been dealing with that for a number of years,” said Eugene Police Chief Robert Lehner of Snowden’s allegations. “We have occasionally made arrests” due to her complaints, he said. In other cases, Lehner said that the racial slurs lacked a threat of violence or the threat of provoking violence. “That’s not illegal,” Lehner said of racial slurs that lack the violence component. Lehner said the city is working on a separate hate speech ordinance that could make such slurs illegal.

 Proponents of the measure claimed that rising crime downtown made it necessary. “There is a crisis in safety downtown,” said Councilor Andrea Ortiz, a key swing vote on the politically divided council. “I am willing to try anything.”

But according to statistics posted on the EPD’s website, violent crime downtown dropped 16 percent in 2007, property crime dropped 15 percent and behavior crimes dropped 3 percent. 

Developer Jean Tate supported the exclusion ordinance but said, “The more people we have downtown, the more safe it will be.” 

Ironically, fewer people may want to come downtown after the month of “downtown crime crisis” hype that proponents used to push the ordinance.