PORTLAND POLICE have made no secret of the fact they're at war with the nuisance crimes they say tarnish the city's quality of life.
Since last summer, cops and prosecutors have targeted illegal camping, littering, drinking, and public urination as pastimes that can now get you thrown in jail in the Rose City ["Can't Sleep Here," News, July 30].
Now you can add spitting to that list.
In late September, the Mercury has learned, police arrested a homeless woman on a pair of misdemeanor charges after she spat twice while cursing at an officer. That officer, Justin Damerville, claimed Alexandra Barrett—a self-described activist who's amassed a lengthy list of criminal cases—committed the misdemeanor of "offensive littering" by spitting on the ground in front of him, and broke a law against "interfering with a peace officer," or IPO, when she did it again despite his warning.
Barrett was hauled to jail because of the transgressive saliva. And in charging the 25-year-old in the case, the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office appears to have gone against its own policies.
The office contends that's not true. Nonetheless, it announced on Tuesday, October 7, that it will dismiss the two charges—a reduced count of "spitting in public places" and IPO—after the Mercury brought the case to the attention of District Attorney Rod Underhill earlier this month.
"Does it have prosecutorial merit?" asks Deputy DA Jim Hayden. "I think in retrospect we're looking at it and saying, 'I don't think it does.'"
The case raises questions over how thoroughly prosecutors are vetting that prosecutorial merit in these quality-of-life cases, and over the excuses officers are finding to crack down on Portland's transient population.
The Portland Police Bureau and DA's office began using the state's IPO statute last year as a way to leverage stiffer consequences for relatively minor crimes. By tying low-level offenses like littering and public drinking to a misdemeanor interference charge, officials can arrest scofflaws who ignore court dates, they say, and help ensure justice is served.
But the DA's office retired an early iteration of the policy this year, after questions from the Mercury revealed it was being misapplied to enforce the city's laws around sidewalk use ["Bending the Law," News, February 26]. In its place, the office produced new charging guidelines in April. They require cops to give offenders prior "warning(s) against future, repeated, unlawful behavior," and to document those warnings in a police report, before they make an arrest.
That didn't happen in Barrett's case. According to the report filed by Officer Damerville on September 22, he was patrolling near SW 3rd and Stark when he spied Barrett, whom he'd arrested two days earlier on suspicion of offensive littering (prosecutors declined to charge Barrett in that case, court records show).
Barrett began waving her middle fingers and hurling curses at him, Damerville said, claiming he arrested her unlawfully. Then she "cleared her throat" and spat.
"I know that the sidewalks are cleaned multiple times per week," Damerville wrote. "I told Barrett not to spit on the sidewalk and if she did she would be arrested. Barrett again responded 'fuck you,' and spit on the sidewalk in my direction."
The state's "offensive littering" law mentions nothing about spitting. Even in the portion that would most apply to Barrett, it only prohibits creating "an objectionable stench" or "depositing any rubbish, trash, garbage, debris, or other refuse" on public property.
That the crime didn't fit this case is evidenced by the fact prosecutors elected not to file it—Deputy DA Laurie Abraham reduced the charge to spitting in public, a violation of city ordinance. Despite all that, Hayden argues his office was within its own policies to charge Barrett with IPO, and that Officer Damerville had probable cause to arrest her for littering.
"Our decision to dismiss this isn't because we violated our policy," he says, calling Barrett's case the "most extenuating" circumstance he's seen for using the IPO policy. "I don't think spitting cases are something our office wants to pursue."
Barrett's attorney, public defender Sara Mulroy, said she hadn't been told of the dismissal, but that she'd be "thrilled if that is the case."
Meanwhile, Portland Police Bureau head spokesman Sergeant Pete Simpson said he hadn't seen the case and couldn't comment on whether Barrett's actions warranted an arrest for littering. But he noted that "the loaded loogie, if you will" could have ramped up the encounter.
"And if she's a chronic offender, then the tolerance level for behaviors is much lower," Simpson said. "She's not going to catch a break."