Facing a Lawsuit, Oakland Repeals Loitering Law

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — To head off federal litigation over an allegedly racist Oakland ordinance prohibiting public housing residents from loitering in common areas of their housing complexes, the Oakland City Council repealed the decades-old law Tuesday night.

The loitering law was repealed without discussion, at the request of Chief Assistant City Attorney Maria Bee. Bee cited potential “constitutional issues” warranting repeal, but gave no further explanation.

Nor did City Attorney Barbara Parker’s written recommendation submitted to the City Council this month provide an explanation. But in a stipulated request to stay a September lawsuit seeking to strike down the ordinance pending a repeal vote, the City Attorney’s Office said that repeal “would bear significantly on this litigation.”

The City Attorney’s Office had no comment on the recommendation Tuesday night.

In the Sept. 19 lawsuit in San Francisco Federal Court, Lockwood Gardens resident Darren Mathieu II and former Lockwood resident Edward Jackson Jr. liken Oakland’s loitering law to similar laws enacted in the Jim Crow-era South “to control black residents.”

They say the law violates the federal and California constitutions because it gives officers an excuse to stop and question residents and their guests for any reason, and “unlimited discretion to determine what constitutes a violation.”

Mathieu, who is 26 and has lived at Lockwood near the Oakland Coliseum since he was 2 years old, says he was stopped 63 times in six years by Oakland Housing Authority police officers, for merely standing in his front yard, sitting on lawn chairs outside his home with friends, “and for just standing with other people in outdoor areas” near his door.

He says he was handcuffed, searched and asked for identification during the stops, despite being a longtime resident. None of the stops resulted in a loitering citation.

Jackson, a former Lockwood resident who still visits family and friends at the complex, says that while sitting with friends in a Lockwood courtyard watching a football game, officers handcuffed him, put him in the back of a patrol car and illegally threatened to jail him for loitering.

When Jackson became angry because he was denied permission to retrieve his phone and keys from the property, housing authority officers called the Oakland Police Department, which sent six squad cars to Lockwood, “all to deal with a purported ‘loitering violation,’” and the Alameda County Superior Court fined him $785, according to the complaint.

Housing authority police questioned another resident because people had gathered in front of his home for his son’s funeral, the complaint states.

Loitering stops are reported to the housing authority as lease violations, putting residents at risk of eviction.

“Mathieu is under constant stress due to the unpredictability and relentlessness of OHAPD’s [Oakland Housing Authority Police Department] harassment and its constant loitering accusations,” attorney George Morris wrote in the lawsuit. He “increasingly chooses to stay inside his apartment and avoid going to the outdoor areas of Lockwood at all. He is worried that any interaction with the OHAPD will lead to another incident report, another reported lease violation, and another threat to his and his mother’s ability to remain in publicly subsidized housing.”

Jackson says he avoids Lockwood “whenever possible,” though he has close friends and close family members who live there, “including cousins, aunts, and uncles with whom he is very close,” Morris wrote. “Because of OHAPD’s overzealous enforcement of the loitering ordinance, Jackson now sees them only infrequently.”

At the Tuesday night meeting, community advocate Assata Olugbala told the City Council she did not “fully understand how you got to this point to realize you needed to do something,” about the ordinance, reflecting the city’s efforts to discreetly end the lawsuit.

Another resident, who did not give his name but identified himself as homeless, questioned the practicality of the ordinance.

“It’s just really hard to judge who should be in a spot and who shouldn’t be in a spot,” he said. “If a person is a resident, they have the right to be there.”

Attorney Morris, with King & Spalding in Palo Alto, could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

The case is before U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer.

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