Oregon City to Ban Would-Be Criminals

Fed up with drug dealing and petty crime, Eugene, Ore., officials want to ban people who have been accused or convicted of crimes from the downtown area.

Some say the proposed ordinance is an overreaction that's unconstitutional and would never stand up in court. Others, like Eugene Chief of Police Robert Lehner, defend the proposal as an effective way to fight crime and blight, and say the exclusion is not as broad as it seems.

Store owners and residents in Eugene, population 153,000, have been complaining about unsavory people who loiter downtown, hindering business and threatening pedestrian safety, according to Lehner.

"Police officers and judges are all very familiar with who these people are," Lehner told ABCNews.com. "This has been a longstanding issue that has probably gone on for decades. There was lull in crime for awhile, but it picked up a fair bit with the economic downturn in the downtown area."

The city council of Eugene wants to exclude individuals from downtown for 90 days if "a municipal court judge finds by a preponderance of evidence that a person committed certain offenses within the zone."

The accused would get a trial before a municipal judge before he or she could be banned from the downtown. Under the proposed ordinance, if a person has already been convicted of disorderly conduct, drug dealing, robbery, assault or other offenses in downtown Eugene, he or she could be excluded for one year from the area.

Jeffrey Fagan, the co-director of the Center for Crime, Community and Law at Columbia University, says that this type of ordinance would change the way in which a judge would make decisions about offenders.

"As in 'Field of Dreams', if you pass a law that permits control over suspects who the courts deem potentially dangerous -- in certain places -- judges will use it," Fagan told ABCNews.com. "It's what prosecutors and judges like to refer to as 'tools' to gain control over suspects. It also creates the possibility of a contempt charge, which in and of itself is punishable as a misdemeanor."

Dave Hauser, the president of Downtown Eugene Inc., supports the proposed ordinance because he believes it will improve the city's businesses.

"Our downtown is in transition," Hauser told ABCNews.com. "There are today some areas of empty storefronts and empty lots and they end up serving as places where some of the individuals who this ordinance may be aimed at tend to gather and commit property crimes. It significantly impacts the ability of businesses to operate there and the businesses are frustrated."

While many downtown businesspeople expressed support for the ban, some residents wonder why it's needed.

Jaime Wren, a recent graduate of the University of Oregon in Eugene, doesn't see downtown as crime-ridden.

"It's not particularly dangerous downtown," Wren told ABCNews.com. "There is a homeless population, of course, but not a particularly large one. Bad things have happened, but I wouldn't tell people not to go downtown."

Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch, who has joined the debate on residential limitations for sex offenders in cities, says the Eugene ordinance would need to change to be considered lawful.

"The Eugene ordinance as it is will most certainly be considered unconstitutional," Fellner told ABCNews.com. "It would be unconstituional to say that a whole class of people, based solely on their convictions, can't go into a part of a city. The ACLU will certainly challenge this."

ACLU lawyers of Eugene announced their opposition to the ordinance at a council hearing Monday night. While they expressed sympathy for business owners and residents in the downtown area, they proposed a different idea.

"We believe that the city and community would be better served by an ordinance that allows the municipal court, within the context of the related criminal case, to impose exclusion on an individual as a condition of release and upon conviction as a condition of probation," Oregon ACLU field organizer Claire Syrett wrote in the testimony. "This would ensure that anyone facing such an exclusion order would be afforded legal representation."

An ordinance that excludes offenders or potential criminals in a zone of a city could shift the problem elsewhere and give too much discretion to police officers in screening pedestrians, according to Syrett.

Eugene City Council member Andrea Ortiz, who proposed the city ordinance with Mike Clark, said she doesn't want to permit authorities to broadly exclude certain types of people from downtown.

"I'm very cautious when I hear people say things like, 'we don't want those people down here,'" Ortiz told ABCNews.com. "Some of the merchants are saying that. There's a lot of credibility behind what they're saying: there are youths on the street that don't have a lot to do and there are mentally ill people who don't have any place to go. But we should not paint everybody with a broad brush. If people are behaving well, whether or not they are homeless, I think we should welcome them in the downtown area."

The city council has set a vote on the proposal for Aug. 11.

Exclusionary ordinances are nothing new in the U.S., though few have gone as far as trying to ban people who have been accused but not convicted of a crime.

Both Eugene and Portland, Ore. have implemented exclusionary ordinances in certain parts of the cities. Portland's drug-affiliated exclusion law was set aside after issues of racial profiling arose.

In other states, laws have been upheld that exclude convicts. In Georgia, for example, the state's Supreme Court has upheld a law that allows convicts on parole to be banished from almost the entire state so long as they have one county or judicial district to go to.