Today's Question: Does Columbia need a loitering ordinance?

Thursday, August 6, 2009 | 12:35 p.m. CDT; updated 12:44 p.m. CDT, Thursday, August 6, 2009

The City Council on Monday heard a report from the Police Department on a potential loitering law in the Special Business District. Among the biggest issues, if the city decides to go down that road, is drafting a law specific enough to avoid violating a 1999 Supreme Court ruling.

Drafting the ordinance is a ways off while more research is done on how it can be implemented. But an initial poll of 33 downtown business owners conducted by the Police Department found that all were in favor of a downtown loitering ordinance.

The danger is writing a law that is too vague, like Chicago did in 1992. That law defined loitering as “remaining in any one place with no apparent purpose.” That's pretty much the dictionary definition, but the Supreme Court struck it down years later. Since then, other municipalities have passed loitering ordinances that avoided challenge by using much more specific language.

Some of the “problems” the police report identifies in the district involve large crowds gathering outside bars, but the first problems listed are vagrancy and aggressive panhandling, issues associated with the homeless.

If Columbia starts arresting the homeless for panhandling downtown, they'll need somewhere else to go. The ordinance could, if enacted, remove some of Columbia's homeless population from downtown, but if worded too vaguely, the city might have costly legal issues on its hands.

Does Columbia need a loitering ordinance?

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