Proposed DC Crime Bill could affect Occupy protests

DC Council member Phil Mendelson

This year’s Crime Bill proposed by DC City Council is the subject of scrutiny because of controversial provisions which could potentially impact protests in the District such as Occupy DC.

Council members Phil Mendelson and Kwame Brown introduced the Criminal Code Amendments Act at the beginning of the year. It proposes adjustments to existing criminal law in several areas– registration with the Gun Offender Registry, addition of substances defined as “controlled,” penalties for possessing contraband into jail, clarification of obscene behavior in front of minors, and a raised felony threshold for writing bad checks.

The Washington Times reports that “the bill appears to broaden powers vested in an 1892 law allowing police to clamp down on disorderly conduct in public spaces.” Tucked among these provisions, however, are changes to laws about disorderly conduct, and some of these could be interpreted as targeting Occupy DC. For example, infractions for “blocking passage” expanded from just sidewalks to sidewalks, parks and reservations–a change proposed when Occupy protests have made parks their main demonstration site and base of operations.

The proposed changes to the definition of disorderly conduct also include language open to interpretation, such as “disruptive” behavior inside buildings. Law enforcement would be able arrest those who return to the scene of an “unlawful protest,” which brings up whether police could break up demonstrations they deem unlawful and issue undefined stay-away orders.

Phil Mendelson, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, says that the bill’s intention is “to focus on who prosecutes crimes in the District,” local or federal government. He also said that “changes in 2010 to the city’s disorderly conduct laws had the unintended effect of burdening the U.S. Attorney’s Office with misdemeanor cases,” and “I don’t think there’s anything nefarious in it with regards to Occupy DC.”

No council member wants to see the entire Crime Bill die, especially, no doubt, when it has provisions protecting children from obscene behavior. As is, the ACLU’s legal team is reportedly looking at issues of constitutionality and openness to legal challenge, but there is still opportunity to amend the bill. The Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the Crime Bill on March 16, after which it will go to mark-up.

(Image by mar is sea Y)

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