Lawsuit Blasts Detroit Loitering Law
Attorney seeks class action status for those ticketed for just being near illegal activity
By George Hunter/The Detroit News
October 10, 2011
Detroit– A federal lawsuit claims Detroit police officers routinely hand out loitering tickets to people whose only crime is being near illegal activity.
Southfield attorney Daniel Romano represents 12 clients who were ticketed by Detroit police for “loitering in a place of illegal occupation,” a misdemeanor punishable by up to 93 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Romano last month filed a motion for his clients to be granted class-action status; a hearing is set for Wednesday in U.S. District Court.
“If we don’t get class-action status, we’ll move ahead with the lawsuits individually,” Romano said, adding that there are likely “thousands of people” who’ve been ticketed for the loitering offense.
“The police are giving these tickets to people who just happened to be in the vicinity of where illegal activity took place,” Romano said. “If you’re unlucky enough to be on the same block as a drug house they’re raiding, you get a ticket. It’s outrageous, and goes against everything the constitution stands for.”
City attorneys did not return phone calls seeking comment.
In his motion, Romano wrote: “The Detroit Police Department has issued tickets …. for ‘Loitering in a place of illegal occupation,’ which is a misdemeanor citation in violation of section 38-5-1 of the Detroit City Code, but fails to clearly define what constitutes ‘loitering’ and what constitutes ‘place of illegal occupation.’ Moreover it fails to provide adequate guidelines for enforcement.”
Melissa Skardoutos, 27, of Redford Township received a loitering ticket on the rainy evening of July 11, after she dropped off her cousin at Victory Inn & Suites motel on Telegraph in Detroit.
“The cops followed me for a few miles and finally pulled me over,” Skardoutos said. “The officer accused me of trying to buy drugs. I told him I didn’t buy any drugs, and that I didn’t have any drugs on me. But he acted like he was doing me a favor by giving me this ticket.”
Skardoutos fought the case in 36th District Court and won, but is now suing the city, claiming the police had no right to pull her over and ticket her.
“The whole thing is a nightmare,” Skardoutos said. “We ended up getting the case dropped, but I’ll never forget that night; how the police made me feel so belittled, and made me believe I was doing something wrong when I really wasn’t. It was so gratifying to get that case dropped.”
Romano said Skardoutos’ rights were violated. “Unless Detroit is subject to a different Constitution than the rest of the country, the police had no right to pull her over, since she did nothing unlawful. There was no speeding ticket; no arrest for drug possession. She was followed and given a ticket because she happened to be near a hotel where the police said drugs were being sold. Her only ‘crime’ was dropping a friend off at a hotel when it was raining.”
Jason Morton of Detroit, another client of Romano’s, said he was in his car on Indiana Street on the city’s west side, waiting for a friend to play basketball the night of June 26, 2009, when he saw police cars approach.
“I was off duty from my security guard job when I noticed the police getting ready to raid this house down the street,” said Morton, 29. “One of the female officers approached my vehicle and asked what I was doing. I told her, but she didn’t believe me; she snatched me and my buddy out of the vehicle.”
Morton said he informed the officer that he had a pistol, necessitated by his security job, and that he had a license to carry it. “They took my gun, handcuffed us and took us down the street to the house they were raiding. Then they served us with the tickets. I tried to tell them I wasn’t even near that house – I was four houses down – but they didn’t listen.”
Morton pleaded not guilty in 36th District Court, and the charge was dropped without prejudice, meaning the charge could be reinstated in the future. “After the case was dropped, they said they were going to release my weapon back to me, but they haven’t,” Morton said.
Morton’s attorneys claim the city retaliated against Morton because after his lawsuit was filed in July, the loitering ticket was re-issued more than two years after the alleged offense.
“It’s mind-boggling why the police would re-issue that ticket,” said Morton’s co-counsel Gordana Misovski. “They get served with a civil rights lawsuit and turn around and re-issue the same ticket that was dismissed, two years after it was written?
Curt Benson, professor at Cooley School of Law in Grand Rapids, said some statutes, such as the loitering in a place of illegal occupation section of the City Code, are left purposely vague.
“The city has very broad power to preserve the peace, and since it’s impossible to anticipate every combination of facts that might result in a breach of peace, the statutes themselves tend to be broadly written,” Benson said. “There’s nothing wrong with the statute itself; the problem is in how the police sometimes apply it. If they’re ticketing people who aren’t committing a crime, that’s when you run into a constitutional problem.”