Drug Free Zones Take Hit from Judge; Renewal Date Approaching
Portland's "Drug-Free Zones" (DFZs), areas from which people can be excluded after being arrested or convicted of committing drug crimes, recently took a verbal beating in court, resulting in dozens of overturned convictions, and are likely up for review this fall. The Zones, originally established in 1993, are supposed to be renewed every three years; they have been voted on in February, 1997, September, 1999 and September, 2002 (see PPRs #11, 19 & 28).
In April, Multnomah Circuit Court Judge Michael Marcus considered the case of City of Portland vs. Eric Burrage, in which Metropolitan Public Defender Chris O'Connor was arguing for a number of clients that the DFZs were not only unconstitutional, but racist as well. O'Connor found that 63.4% of people excluded from 2003-2004 were African American in a city that is 6.6% black (Portland Tribune, April 12). Marcus, unfortunately, bought Deputy City Attorney David Woboril's defense that without statistics showing how likely African Americans are to "make themselves vulnerable to enforcement because of their behavior" he couldn't make that ruling (street roots, May 1).
However, Marcus determined that in a number of cases, officers crossed out the "variances" section of the exclusion notices, which are ostensibly to allow people to travel within the Zones to and from their homes, social service agencies, and to courthouses and police precincts to challenge the DFZ exclusions themselves. As a result, Woboril admitted "Those would be void and invalid" (Tribune). Some 4015 cases are being reviewed, and by May 13 at least 80 cases had been overturned because of the decision by some officers to deny variances (Portland Mercury , May 19).
Brian Hubbard (#32024), Mace Winter (#26981) and James Fritz (#40607) are among the officers who crossed off the boxes allowing for variances (Portland Tribune, April 11).
Though Marcus finds the concept of DFZs similar to totalitarianism, his role as a judge limited him in what he was able to do to overturn the ordinance. He admitted to liking the general idea of "evidence-based problem solving," but noted that even though DFZs may be effective tools, the ends do not necessarily justify the means (Mercury, April 14). The City is currently reconsidering the ordinance based on Marcus' rulings that: (a) the variances must be given as part of any exclusion; (b) excluded persons do not have to carry their papers with them at all times; and (c) if a person is not given paperwork, that can be a reason to invalidate an exclusion (Tribune, April 22).
Marcus noted the classism of the DFZs by pointing out that no one can claim the same resources spent on targeting the poor and people of color are spent on those "dressed as prosperous professionals discreetly buying and selling powder cocaine" (Oregonian, April 22).
O'Connor summed up the problem, telling street roots, "The city police should enforce [existing drug] laws instead of making up new laws creating a special legal class of 'drug people.' The true purpose of the drug-free zone is to allow the police to harass and move along 'undesirables' when the police don't have any reason to accuse them of new crimes."
For more information contact Metropolitan Public Defenders at 503-225-9100.
The Drug-Free Zones include the downtown areas roughly from Union Station to PSU and NW 23rd Ave. to the Willamette, on the inner east side between Halsey St. and the Hawthorne Bridge out to 12th Ave., and the area of N/NE Portland bounded by N Missouri and Ainsworth to NE 15th & Fremont.
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