Last July, Glen White was arrested on the sidewalk in front of his home. Only a few months previously White had been busted on a run-of-the-mill drug possession and kicked out of the city's system of so-called Drug-Free Zones (DFZs)--an area that quite inconveniently included his neighborhood.
This conflict between one of Portland police's favorite enforcement tools and one man's right to live in his own home has touched off a chain reaction that, later this month, will result in a constitutional challenge to the policy in federal court. It could very well dismantle DFZs in Portland.
Local public defenders and civil rights attorneys have long complained that the power police have accumulated under the city's anti-drug campaign threatens the basic liberties of Portland's citizens. Under a city ordinance passed in 1992, DFZs are areas in the city from which police are authorized to ban suspected drug offenders.
This won't be their first attempt. Last August, Shane Abma and other lawyers at Davis Wright Tremaine filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the City of Portland and the Chief of Police. The thrust of the suit was that White's civil rights were violated when he was excluded from--then arrested in--a DFZ surrounding his house.
But Judge John Jelderks chose not to hear the case for remedial procedural reasons, saying that this federal challenge conflicted with White's ongoing involvement in a state court case.
After suffering last year's procedural setback, Abma continues to work on the case pro bono. Moreover, a new plaintiff has emerged and Abma expects to file a fresh complaint possibly as early as next week.
Arrested after a marijuana purchase at Skidmore Fountain, the new plaintiff was also convicted and excluded for a year from a DFZ surrounding her residence. (Abma was unwilling to provide the plaintiff's name or much more than cursory information.)
In spite of the earlier setbacks, Abma is confident that his new client's case is compelling and could be the thread that unravels DFZs.
Abma has legal basis for his optimism. Cincinnati has been the only city to follow Portland's lead; but even their watered-down version of DFZs was struck down in short order on constitutional grounds.
One clear-cut argument to be made against the ordinance, says Abma, is its violation of the so-called "double jeopardy" clause, which protects people from being punished twice for the same crime. Under the current system, if a defendant is convicted of drug crimes, the one-year ban from DFZs piggybacks the judge's sentence--essentially handing out two penalties for one infraction, according to Abma.
Abma has a second prong to his legal argument: He will argue that the ordinance violates a person's right to associate with family as well as their right to practice religion, since downtown's only mosque and synagogue lie within one of the city's DFZ borders.
But in spite of years of similar complaints, the DFZs remain wildly popular among most city officials who say they've helped clean up Portland's streets.
"It's absolutely effective," said Jim Hayden, Deputy District Attorney for Multnomah County. "DFZs are [still] here because people in the community want them. If they didn't want them, we wouldn't have them."
Civil rights advocates like Abma and Kelly Skye, an attorney for Public Defenders Metropolitan, dispute the program's effectiveness, maintaining that DFZs only push crime into areas that are easier for officials to ignore.
However, Abma and Skye worry that the ordinance is all too effective in other ways. They say it effectively legalizes police harassment of minority and indigent populations. It is reported that 65 percent of police-issued exclusions go to African Americans and Latinos.