Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 7.29.10

Caught in the Flytrap
Downtown exclusion zone is unjustified and unconstitutional
By Katy Crosslin

The U.S. Constitution provides that everyone has the right to speak his or her mind and assemble with others in public places such as public parks and sidewalks. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, sidewalks and downtown common areas are considered quintessential public forums deserving of the maximum constitutional protections. The Constitution does not discern between rich or poor, young or old, homeowners or houseless citizens. Apparently the city of Eugene and the Eugene Police Department are not well versed with these tenets of our democracy and have been utilizing their powers to unconstitutionally harass the poor, the young, and houseless people living in our fair city in order to protect “the right to shop and consume” without being forced to set eyes on how the other half lives.

Before the Downtown Public Safety Zone (DPSZ) was passed, many of its supporters claimed that crime rates were on the rise. But, according to statistics on the EPD’s website, property crime dropped 15 percent in 2007, violent crime dropped 16 percent and behavior crimes dropped 3 percent — so what precipitated this community need?

Prior to implementation of this exclusion zone, a Downtown Public Safety Task Team was created to attempt to justify this unwarranted program. The team, made up primarily of downtown retailers, admitted it wanted to create programs and incentives to encourage the homeless to go to other parts of town by giving them coupons for places outside of the downtown exclusion zone. The Civil Liberties Defense Center believes that the language used by the “team” makes it clear that many people are not welcome downtown at all, that they are profiling people in order to decide who should be excluded from public spaces downtown and are attempting to push the issues of homelessness, mental illness and other community concerns onto other neighborhoods. The team gave some lipspeak about providing “services” to these communities, but other than witnessing cops and private security guards harassing and using our tax dollars to thrust expensive tickets on penniless people, we haven’t seen much in the way of “service.”

In 2008 the Eugene City Council adopted Ordinance #20419, which defined a Downtown Public Safety Zone and enacted conditions under which the Eugene Municipal Court could exclude a person from the zone. Five out of eight City Council members approved of it, including Andrea Ortiz, Mike Clark, Chris Pryor and Jennifer Solomon. Councilors Betty Taylor, Alan Zelenka, and Bonny Bettman McCornack were the only three who opposed the ordinance. The ordinance states that any person who is simply accused of one of many minor (and often ambiguous) offenses listed below can be excluded from the DPSZ for 90 days. If a person is later convicted of committing one of a larger list of offenses in the downtown area, she or he can be excluded for a year. Since most of the folks appearing before the municipal judge don’t have lawyers and don’t understand what is happening to them, it’s simply a matter of the prosecutor asking for the exclusion and the judge granting it because no one is there to fight it. 

If the city of Eugene were to make its statistics regarding the DPSZ public, we’d find that the vast majority of people targeted for prosecution are indigent and/or youth — both of whom have very little access to lawyers or legal information. In the case of the DPSZ, you are not entitled to a court appointed attorney to assist you in fighting an exclusion that forbids you from utilizing the public bus station, FOOD for Lane County kitchen and many other public services. And of course, once you are in this flytrap, each time you are spotted walking the public sidewalk within the “zone” you are prosecuted again, and your exclusion is continued for another year. What next? Free bus fare to Springfield for Eugene’s undesirables?

Recently a city worker, at the direction of a police officer, painted a white border around nearly the entire perimeter of the city block that surrounds the LTD bus station. In the white border are the words, “DO NOT BLOCK PUBLIC RIGHT OF WAY.” According to police, the sidewalk that surrounds the LTD bus station is notorious for having large crowds of people that often linger to chat with friends or wait for a bus. The EPD claims that they have received complaints from a handicapped citizen and others that there were too many people blocking the sidewalks and not allowing pedestrians to get through. The painting of the sidewalk cost the city $300. The EPD claims that people are allowed to linger within the box, but if a pedestrian asks to pass through, then they must be allowed passage. If a person blocks a public right of way, they can get a $280 ticket. Carol Berg-Caldwell, a Eugene activist, said she visited the box not long after the paint dried and received distressing news from teens. She said that the teens were told by cops that if they merely stepped over the line, they would get a ticket. There is no legal basis for such a threat, and thus the police attempt to chill the lawful rights of citizens violates clearly established constitutional rights. Police are required to protect the constitutional rights of all citizens, not act like bullies toward marginalized individuals. 

EPD keeps a database of who is not allowed within the downtown zone (a “watch list” of transients). There is a complex procedure for an excluded person to obtain what is called a “variance,” which allows that person to enter the downtown area for crucial and basic needs only, and they must carry the variance documents on them while in the exclusion zone.

Portland tried an exclusion ordinance as well but eliminated it based upon serious concerns of police profiling. Whether Portland or Eugene, these exclusions are repugnant violations of peoples’ civil rights and liberties and are an ineffective waste of taxpayer resources.

Based upon crime statistics, there is no need for this illegal profiling program. Instead of harassing homeless people, we could use the money to offer programs, counseling, and nonreligious shelter. The exclusion ordinance only displaces the problem of homelessness and crime and attempts to legitimize police profiling based upon class, appearance and lifestyle. 

The exclusion zone includes 20 square blocks of downtown, from 7th to 11th Avenues and from Pearl to Lincoln streets. Lane County Courthouse is not included. The zone also extends to Lawrence Street between 7th and 8th Avenues.

The ordinance is scheduled to expire Aug. 11, and the council is set to vote August 9 on whether the exclusion zone should be continued. Raise your voice and be heard on this important community issue! If you feel that you have been unconstitutionally targeted or harassed in the DPSZ or white sidewalk boxes, contact the Civil Liberties Defense Center at 687-9180. 

Katy Crosslin is a senior at the UO and an intern at the Civil Liberties Defense Center. Her major is environmental studies, and she has “recently become passionate about law which is why I’m interning at the CLDC.”