Thursday, June 5

BAGHDAD ON THE POTOMAC: CHECKPOINT FENTY RAISING OPPOSITION

DC Mayor Adrian Fenty and Police Chief Kathy Lanier have announced one of the most intrinsically unconstitutional, unAmerican and stupid police operations ever designed: turning a neighborhood in the nation's capital into a police controlled occupied territory with entrance regulated at checkpoints. The plan for Trinidad is gaining growing opposition including from the local NAACP Metropolitan Police Task Force. The local ACLU plans to have legal observers on the scene.

DOROTHY BRIZILL, DC WATCH - Under the NSZ initiative, MPD will seal off entire neighborhoods and establish police checkpoints "for the purpose of determining whether the operator and occupants [of a motor vehicle] have a legitimate reason for entering the NSZ." According to the press release, individuals will be asked to show a valid identification and provide an acceptable explanation for wanting to enter the NSZ. According to the mayor's order, the only legitimate reasons that police will accept are that: "the person resides in the NSZ; the person is employed in the NSZ or is on a commercial delivery; the person attends school or is taking a child to or picking a child up from school in the NSZ; or the person is attempted to attend a verified organized civic, community, or religious event in the NSZ." The mayor's press release and mayoral spokesmen are claiming that other reasons, such as visiting friends or relatives or attending a party, will be accepted; but this is not true. Under the Mayoral order that establishes NSZs, these are the only four reasons that the MPD may accept to allow people into forbidden neighborhoods. The Mayoral order also clearly states that anyone who fails to comply is subject to arrest for failure to obey police directions. There is also an indication that police at the checkpoints sealing off neighborhoods may be allowed to search vehicles without probable cause. That is not mentioned in the Mayor's order, but mayoral spokesmen are claiming that it will be done.

The Fenty-Lanier NSZ crime initiative is the latest public safety misstep by the District government. In March, Lanier announced her "Safe Homes Initiative" that was similarly contemptuous of citizens' Fourth Amendment rights. In April, as a result of public uproar over the plan to have police officers knock on doors and ask to be admitted to search for illegal firearms, that plan was quietly abandoned. Also in April, the mayor announced the Video Interoperability for Public Safety program, an initiative to link the District's more than five thousand video spy cameras into a single, unregulated network. At a city council hearing on before the Judiciary Committee, the administration was asked to put VIPS on hold until it thought through the purpose of the initiative, to reconsider whether it should create a single network of cameras, and until it drafted acceptable regulations for all governmental video cameras.

ARTHUR SPITZER, ACLU OF THE NATIONAL CAPITAL AREA Welcome to Baghdad, DC, where you now may need police permission to visit your friends and relatives or go to church outside your own neighborhood and where driving down a "main thoroughfare" because it's the best way to your destination is now apparently a privilege reserved for police cars and the mayor's SUV. We're no longer taking baby steps toward a police state, but big, grown-up steps.

Will this draconian measure end the killings? Of course not. The location of these roadblocks will be no secret. Anyone who wants to enter the neighborhood with a gun can use another street, or enter on foot, or wait a few days until the roadblock has moved to a different neighborhood. Meanwhile, hundreds or thousands of law-abiding drivers will have to give a good enough reason to proceed, or be turned away. And of course the recent spike of murders will stop - that's the nature of a spike. Then the mayor and the Chief can claim credit and point with pride to the "success" of this tactic, thus legitimizing its continued use. Then when the next crime spike comes along despite roadblocks, they'll just ratchet up the police state one more notch.

INTERESTINGLY, the neighborhood, once quite small, has been redefined by the DC government to included places being eyed by city gentrifiers for major developments including New York Avenue, Bladensburg Road and the historic black Langston golf course.

DC EXAMINER Constitutional scholars threw cold water on Mayor Adrian Fenty's plan to quarantine violent neighborhoods, warning that the effort to establish sealed off zones may well be headed for court.

"It's still a free country," said District Councilwoman Mary Cheh, D-Ward 3, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. "You can travel where you want and not have to explain yourself to police."

Interim Attorney General Peter Nickles said that measure has already been tested by federal courts. He pointed especially to a 1995 case out of New York where a federal panel ruled against a retired policeman who was arrested at a neighborhood barricade.

But Bonnie I. Robin-Vergeer, a senior lawyer at the activist group Public Citizen, said the New York case only involved the question of whether a police checkpoint in a violent neighborhood violates citizens' rights.

She said a better example was a 1999 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an anti-gang loitering ordinance in Chicago.

It's not just traditional liberals who are worried about the quarantine. Roger Pilon, a vice president at the libertarian Cato Institute, said D.C.'s emphasis on "legitimate reason" is too vague and gives police too much discretion - never a good combination to survive a constitutional challenge.

D.C. Councilman Phil Mendelson, D-at large, said he's worried about the city's attitude toward civil rights, and he's considering calling Judiciary Committee hearings on the matter. "This isn't just one initiative that's maybe a bad idea. It's a series of initiatives," Mendelson said. "What is going on?"

DC EXAMINER A top prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office warned D.C. officials two weeks ago that Mayor Adrian Fenty's plan to seal off high-crime neighborhoods might be unconstitutional, documents obtained by The Examiner show.

Fenty and Police Chief Cathy Lanier defended the Neighborhood Safety Zones as an "extreme" but worthy tactic to fight surges in violent crime. Interim Attorney General Peter Nickles said the zones - manned checkpoints in which every vehicle is stopped, and the occupants are identified and ordered to prove they have a legitimate reason for being there - will not violate anyone's rights.

But in a May 20 e-mail to police officials, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bradley Weinsheimer said he was worried. Can the police, he asked, stop a driver with a disability? If a car has six occupants but only one resident, can it enter? Won't ferreting out who's "legitimate" and who's not lead to questions of selectivity?

"As you can see, I am very concerned that the NSZs will not pass constitutional muster or at least that there are so many circumstances that will lead to discretionary calls on the part of officers that as applied, the NSZs will be unconstitutional," Weinsheimer wrote.

All of those concerns "were accommodated" in the final version of the order enacting the zones, Nickles told The Examiner. "We've been working on this for eight weeks," he said. "This is not a half-assed kind of deal.". . .

The initiative, Fenty said, is a way of "making sure that we can better go into an area and . . . completely shut it down and prevent any type of illegal action from going on in that area." The first zone will be established in Trinidad starting Saturday, Lanier said, specifically along the 1400 block of Montello Avenue. . .

"I guess the plan is to hope criminals will not walk into neighborhoods," said at-large D.C. Councilman Phil Mendelson, chair of the public safety committee. "I also suppose the plan is to take the criminal's word for it when he or she gives the police a reason for driving into a neighborhood."

MATTHEW YGLESIAS, ATLANTIC This is, as best I can tell, a modified version of the security plan General David Petraeus successfully implemented in Baghdad, except I guess Chief Lanier is going to do without building things like the "endless line of concrete blast walls" that separate Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods. So I say, look on the bright side!

Note: The NAACP Metropolitan Police Task Force (of which your editor is a member) and the National Black Police Association will be holding a news conference at the planned site of one of the check points, 1400 Montello Ave NE at 10 AM on Saturday.

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