Columbus Leaders Address Problematic Loitering Law

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The City of Columbus' loitering law is problematic in that it would likely be found unconstitutional in a court of law, so it is not enforced. The city will address the issue tonight at a public hearing.(Photo: exquisiter (flickr))
The City of Columbus' loitering law is problematic in that it would likely be found unconstitutional in a court of law, so it is not enforced. The city will address the issue tonight at a public hearing.(Photo: exquisiter (flickr))

Some Columbus business owners and residents are calling on the city to do more to prevent loitering. They say people hanging out on street corners are up to no good, and hurt neighborhood image. Columbus has an anti-loitering law, but it’s not enforced.

Technically, the city’s loitering ordinance prohibits “loitering in aid of a drug offense.” But City Attorney Rick Pfeiffer said it’s impossible to enforce because how do police officers know if a person on a street corner is looking to sell drugs or just waiting for the bus.

“How do you prove that what they are doing is in fact a criminal act without also arresting people who are innocently doing things and that becomes a difficult problem,” he said.

Eugenia Dade owns Smothered Gravy, a soul food restaurant on East Main Street in Old Town East. Dade said the loitering around her business is minimal.

“I don’t think it’s a problem. You know, if you go to New York or Chicago, those cities are worse than ours,” Dade said.

Discouraging loitering outside Dade’s restaurant are several surveillance cameras. One is operated by Columbus Police and three others run by neighborhood businesses.

But Dade, who is the third generation in her family to own a business on East Main Street, admits she sometimes shoos away people she feels are hanging around too long.

“When they start coming on my corner I tell them, no, and they respect me because this is where they come out to eat. I feed them, you know. And we’re not having this. Y’all have to take that down the street,” Dade said.

A block away from Smothered Gravy on this afternoon were a dozen or so people gathered in an alley. While it’s unknown if they were doing anything illegal, these are the people neighbors want police to arrest for loitering.

Jonathan Beard, who owns Columbus Compact Corporation, has petitioned city council to adopt an enforceable loitering law. Beard’s nonprofit company works to revitalize area communities such as Old Town East. Beard said criminal acts resulting from loitering deter people from moving into, or in some cases causes them to move out of, these communities. In an effort to discourage crime, his company has installed cameras in their revitalized neighborhoods.

“There have been some shootings and some drive-bys. But I think the goal of this thing is to stop the illegal activity from happening. That’s what we think this loitering in aid of drug offenses law can do kind of being prophylactic and prevent the problem before it occurs,” Beard said.

Tonight, City Attorney Pfeiffer will explain in a public hearing the complexities of Columbus’ loitering law and exactly what police can do to prevent street crimes. And Pfeiffer has helped draft a new loitering ordinance that he said is constitutional. But he gives this caveat.

“In application we’re going to say, quite frankly, we’re not believing that it’s going to result in a panacea that some people want. I mean, there’s no question if you live in a neighborhood where you know they’re dealing drugs out there, you want them off the street right now. But government just can’t take them off the street right now unless it gives everybody due process, unless it has a clear law that specifically states what the conduct is, and it’s not so broad that sweeps other people into it that aren’t doing anything wrong,” Pfeiffer said.

Pfeiffer said if a court were to find Columbus’ loitering law unconstitutional the city could face hefty fines. Any new loitering statute would have to be approved by city council.

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