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Seattle repeals drug loitering law that led to racist harassment and arrests

June 24, 2020
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Seattle's drug loitering law was adopted in 1992 as part of the war on drugs. Since then it's been used primarily against people of color. (AdobeStock)

The Seattle City Council voted earlier this week to repeal the city’s 1992 “drug loitering” law, a catchall statute that allowed police to stop, harass, and arrest a person simply for standing and existing.

The measure, originally adopted during the mid-1990s war on drugs, was meant to allow cops to arrest people on suspicion of intent to buy or sell illegal drugs. The measure let law enforcement arrest anyone, as “intent” was based entirely on the word of the police.

Over the years the law was used overwhelmingly against people of color, and especially Black people, in a city with one of the nation’s most progressive reputations.

The vote to repeal was unanimous.

The repeal measure stated, in part:

The crime of drug traffic loitering was added to the Seattle Municipal Code in 1992 during the War on Drugs. Since that time, such laws have been shown to have a disproportionate impact on communities of color and negatively impact already vulnerable populations without improving public safety. The City Attorney has declined to prosecute these crimes since 2018, and repeal will make permanent the inability to use loitering as a basis for arrest or future prosecution.

“We know that loitering laws have a deep and harmful racist history so these bills do offer an important first step,” council member Tammy Morales said during last night’s meeting.

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1992 laws ‘were wrong when enacted’

KUOW reporter Kate Walters noted that the 1992 law, which also applied to “prostitution loitering,” targeted populations at high risk of abuse and exploitation, “and has been shown to have disproportionate impacts on both cis- and transgender women of color.”

'These laws were never appropriate.'
Andrew Lewis, Seattle City Council member

Some council members refused to even call the laws “outdated,” as that might suggest they were appropriate when adopted nearly 30 years ago. “These laws were never appropriate,” said council member Andrew Lewis. “They were wrong when they were enacted and they’re wrong now.”

Council member Andrew Pedersen, one of the repeal measure’s co-sponsors, noted that loitering laws have been one of the tools used to disproportionately harm people of color. “I’ve committed to preventing disproportionate impacts on communities of color by police interactions and this is just one fix to our city laws,” Pedersen said.

Roots in notorious ‘vagrancy’ law

It’s unclear how many North American cities have similar catchall laws on the books. But throughout much of the 20th century, police officers in the United States had the power to arrest anyone at any time based on the notorious charge of “vagrancy.”

Vagrancy laws allowed cops to arrest anyone who, in their eyes, had no visible means of support.

Vagrancy laws allowed cops to arrest anyone who, in their eyes, had no visible means of support. In other words: Unless you could prove you were employed, police could lock you up.

“California law made a vagrant of everyone from wanderers and prostitutes to the willfully unemployed and the lewd,” noted Risa Goluboff. Goluboff, author of Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s, wrote a short history of vagrancy laws for Time magazine in 2016.

“As one Supreme Court justice would write in 1965, vagrancy-related laws made it legal to stand on a street corner ‘only at the whim of any police officer,'” she wrote.

Arresting those who were ‘different’

Goluboff’s portrait of police harassing people with the tool of vagrancy laws sounds a lot like the world encountered by BIPOC today:

The officer on the beat in the 1950s and 1960s saw such threats everywhere, in the “queer,” the “Commie,” the “uppity” black man, the “scruffy” young white one. It was his job to see these threats, to determine who was “legitimate” and who not. He was trained to see difference as dangerous, to see the unusual as criminal. That was what not only his superiors but also the upstanding taxpayers wanted, expected him to do. When he walked the streets questioning and arresting the scum, the flamboyant, the detritus, and the apostate, he brought vagrancy laws with him, and he did his job.

The US Supreme Court finally declared vagrancy laws unconstitutional in a series of decisions in 1971 and 1972.

Unjust, and a waste of taxpayer money

Grey Gardner, senior staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance, a national drug policy reform group, noted that “public intoxication, loitering and public-nuisance statutes are major contributors to over-policing and especially lead to the unfair criminalization of unsheltered people.”

'These statutes should be repealed across the board.'
Grey Gardner, senior staff attorney, Drug Policy Alliance

“Even as governments took emergency measures to reduce social contacts this Spring, many police agencies were still aggressively enforcing these statutes,” Gardner added. “Detaining people and charging them with a crime simply for being intoxicated without causing harm to others is not only unjust, it’s a waste of public resources. These statutes should be repealed across the board.”

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Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

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