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Rethink lingering law

By Chris Brook

Carrboro passed an anti-lingering ordinance applicable only to the intersection of Davie and Jones Ferry roads in 2007. The ordinance makes it a misdemeanor to “stand, sit, recline, linger, or otherwise remain” on this corner from 11 a.m.-5 a.m. It makes it illegal for anyone to socialize at a community event, hail a taxicab, stop to take a phone call, conduct a public survey, hand out fliers, collect donations or do anything else at this corner during the afternoon or evening hours. As was recently reiterated to the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, this ordinance is unconstitutional. The N.C. Court of Appeals struck down an even narrower loitering ordinance in Winston-Salem, stating, “mere presence in a public place cannot constitute a crime.” We should not accept such broad infringement of our First Amendment liberties in our progressive community.
The compelling constitutional arguments for rescinding our anti-loitering ordinance are best illustrated by the circumstances of Alberto “Beto” De Latorre. Beto has worked in Carrboro for 15 years. He has not always worked as a day laborer, but, with the recession, he has increasingly relied upon the corner for employment. As Beto told the board on June 28, “The corner is part of Carrboro. It’s always been there, and we always know where to find a job there.” The corner is the known location in our community to acquire day-laborer services. The ordinance requires Beto and the predominantly Latino day laborers who congregate there to leave the corner at 11 a.m., regardless of whether they have found work or done anything objectionable. Leaving the corner at 11 a.m. reduces the chances that Beto will earn a wage that day.
The ordinance also subjects Beto and other day laborers to humiliating and degrading treatment. Police arrive each morning at 11 a.m. and circulate until everyone disperses from the corner, on occasion even using their squad cars to herd workers off of the corner. “It feels bad when the police show up and tell you to leave. You feel like a criminal,” says Beto.
Beto and the vast majority of individuals at the corner are not criminals; they are just seeking the rewards of a hard day’s work. The ordinance was originally justified by problems ranging from public consumption of alcohol to public urination, but enforcement of the existing criminal code would address these problems. Punishing all for the conduct of one or two is fundamentally unfair.
Curtailing rights just because something bad could possibly occur is something the board typically opposes. For example, the board in June 2002 condemned the Bush administration’s adoption of the USA Patriot Act on the grounds it was incompatible with “the human rights of all persons in Carrboro and their free exercise and enjoyment of any and all rights and privileges secured by our constitutions,” including the right to assembly. Why is infringing upon the right to assembly any more appropriate here, when community members’ livelihoods and humanity are at stake?
Beto has lived in Carrboro for far longer than I have, but I imagine we are both here because of the town’s “pride in being known as a community rich in cultural and economic diversity,” as trumpeted on its website. With its disproportionate burden on the community’s Latino day laborers, the anti-lingering ordinance is a blemish on Carrboro’s progressive reputation. It also offers less Latino-friendly communities an excuse to institute similarly regressive policies. I urge the board to rescind this ordinance and prevent illegal conduct only through constitutional means. “The corner is part of Carrboro,” and we all deserve better.
Chris Brook is an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. He lives in Carrboro.

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