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California Passes "Loitering" Law to Crack Down on Drug Activity


February 1996

On October 16, 1995, California Governor Pete Wilson signed into law a "loitering" bill that makes it possible for police to arrest someone they suspect is engaging in drug dealing or prostitution (Julie Tamaki, "Law Gives Police Broader Powers in Drug, Vice Arrests," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 18, 1995, p. A3).

The law makes it a misdemeanor to loiter in a public place under conditions that police believe constitute "requisite intent" to engage in a drug or prostitution offense. The text of the law lists ten actions police and judges can look for to determine if a person has such requisite intent to engage in drug trafficking. A defendant may be considered having the requisite intent if he or she:

The law states that these factors should be considered "particularly salient" if the person is in an area known for drug trafficking or if the location has been reported to the police as a possible site of drug activity. The text of the law also lists a number of factors to be considered requisite intent for engaging in prostitution. It states that these factors are not exclusive, and police and judges should make determinations on a case-by-case basis.

The ACLU of California opposed the bill, arguing it is an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth and First Amendments, and is vague. In a letter to members of the state Senate Criminal Procedure Committee, the ACLU argued that the law does not give enough information about what activities would be illegal, that by prohibiting actions such as "signals or language" it violates freedom of speech, that it prohibits ordinary activities, and that it opens the door to arbitrary enforcement by police.

The law is intended to aid police in preventing drug activity. Before the law went into effect on January 1, police were required to wait for a person to engage in a drug transaction or an act of prostitution before making an arrest.

[For a copy of the law and the ACLU's response, contact the NewsBriefs office.]