WASHINGTON (CN) – Attorneys for three District of Columbia residents asked the D.C. Circuit court on Wednesday revive a class action challenging the district’s anti-loitering law on the grounds it is impermissibly vague and potentially discriminatory.
As recounted in both court filings and at Wednesday’s hearing, each of the three lead plaintiffs — Daryl Thomas Agnew, Alex Dennis and Rayneka Williamson — was arrested for allegedly blocking a sidewalk under district statute 22-1307.
The local law makes it illegal for a person or group to crowd, obstruct or incommode the use of any street, avenue, alley, road, highway or sidewalk. It also prohibits blocking the entrance to any public or private building.
In June 2017, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson dismissed the underlying class action, holding that the lead plaintiffs abandoned an earlier claim that the statute fails to provide fair notice to individuals before they are legally reprimanded.
They also failed to show they had been personally injured by their arrests under the code, the judge said.
On Wednesday, the plaintiff’s attorney argued that ruling should be reversed because the vague wording of the statute encourages its arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement against blacks and other minorities.
Addressing the three-judge panel on Wednesday, the plaintiffs attorney, William Claiborne said the vague wording of the statute gives police officers too much discretion in how it is enforced.
But Sonya Lebsack, representing the district, argued that words like “obstruct” and “crowd” are clearly understood and adequately describe the specific behaviors being regulated.
Lebsack went on to say that an individual can only be charged with a violation if he continues or resumes the obstructing behavior after being ordered to move by an officer.
Clairborne countered by arguing there are degrees of blocking or obstructing a sidewalk and that none of the plaintiffs “totally” blocked the sidewalk on the day of their arrests.
“The statute is so broad that a single person standing on the sidewalk or even next to the sidewalk, even when no one else is around, regardless of their mental state, can be ordered to leave,” Claiborne continued. “Every single act of using the sidewalk can be construed as crowding incommoding or obstructing.”
Lebsack said the statute is specific in that obstruction of the “use” of public thoroughfares must be observable.
And she said the district’s position is that no other pedestrian needs to be present for a violation to occur.
“If a Sumo wrestler were sitting on a sidewalk and absolutely obstructing entire sidewalk, the officer could observe that behavior without having a pedestrian go by,” Lebsack said.