Church Street No-Trespass Ordinance Survives Legal Challenge | Off Message

Church Street No-Trespass Ordinance Survives Legal Challenge


  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Church Street
A lawsuit challenging the Church Street no-trespass ordinance was dismissed today by a judge who concluded that the two plaintiffs did not have legal standing to pursue their case.

Judge Dennis Pearson expressed sympathy with argument that the ordinance, which allows police officers to banish repeat troublemakers from the downtown street, is an unconstitutional overreach.

But Pearson ruled that the plaintiffs, Burlington attorneys and social justice advocates Jared Carter and Sandy Baird, could not bring the case because neither has been issued a citation ordering them to stay away from Church Street.

"No matter how strongly Plaintiffs Carter and Baird feel about the arguably legitimate questions raised concerning the ordinance, they simply do not have the concrete and personal stake in the outcome or controversy that entitles them to be the proponents of such a lawsuit," Pearson wrote in a 15-page opinion.

The Burlington City Council passed the ordinance in February 2013. It allows police to ban people from Church Street for one of four offenses: public drinking, drug use, disorderly conduct or unlawful mischief.

Police can issue a 24-hour ban for a first or second offense. Subsequent ones can lead to bans of 90 days, then a year. Police have issued at least 65 citations and one yearlong ban.

If a banned person is found on Church Street, he or she is arrested and charged with misdemeanor trespass.

Advocates, including merchants and the police, say the ordinance is a vital tool to keep unruly and disruptive people from the commercial heart of the city.

Critics, including a criminal court judge who has dismissed criminal charges brought under the ordinance, say it unfairly targets mentally ill and poor people. And they say it is overly broad to ban someone not from a specific store or restaurant, but from an entire downtown street.

Pearson seemed amenable to some of those arguments in his ruling.

"There is a better than even chance the plaintiffs are probably correct in at least a few of their arguments against the ordinance," he wrote, later adding, "It would appear there are still basic and serious issues about the ordinance to be explored and resolved."

But he concluded that he could not rule on those issues unless someone who is cited under the ordinance files a lawsuit.

John Franco, the attorney who represented Carter and Baird, said the ruling showed the judge is deeply concerned about the ordinance.

"He spends 10 pages being critical of the ordinance and I think it was clearly intended to be a shot across the city's bow," Franco said.

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