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California Police Trained on Enforcement of "Loitering" Law


May 1996

Although no one has been charged with violating it yet, California interest groups are watching for how that state's new "loitering" law will be enforced, and police are getting training on how to make arrests for violation of the statute ("California Tests Loitering Law to Curb Open-Air Drug Activity," Drug Enforcement Report, March 8, 1996, p. 5).

As was reported in the February issue of NewsBriefs, Governor Pete Wilson signed into law in October 1995 a bill that makes it possible for police to arrest someone they suspect is engaging in drug dealing or prostitution based on a number of factors ("California Passes 'Loitering' Law to Crack Down on Drug Activity," NewsBriefs, February 1996).

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. Some of these factors include: if the defendant -- transfers small packages for currency in a furtive manner, uses a signal typical of dealers summoning drug buyers, or is under the influence of or possesses a narcotic drug.

The law went into effect on January 1, but as of the first week in March there had been no prosecutions for violation of the statute. If a case does go to court, police say they expect the American Civil Liberties Union or other groups to challenge it. In early March, the Coalition on Homelessness videotaped police holding 25 people in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park for alleged violation of the law.

Because they expect the law to be challenged, prosecutors have trained Los Angeles police on how to make arrests under the loitering law, and police are only now starting to enforce it, according to Drug Enforcement Report. Enforcement guidelines reportedly include conducting surveillance for a period of time to establish drug-related activity.

"We have to show that someone has a certain mental state, and you can only show that by the activity they engage in," Asha Greenberg, a Los Angeles deputy city attorney told Drug Enforcement Report. "In other words, there has to be some overt behavior indicative of drug sales that we observe. We're not going to arrest somebody for just being in a drug area." She said in most cases the law would be used if police saw a drug deal, but the evidence was disposed of before the individual was apprehended.