ACLU raises concerns over ordinances in Charlotte, N.C., for DNC

The Charlotte ObserverJanuary 9, 2012 

The city of Charlotte's proposed crowd-control ordinances for the Democratic National Convention have concerned the American Civil Liberties Union, which fears the new rules would give police too much power.

The ACLU is specifically worried about the prohibition of a number of items during the DNC, including backpacks and duffle bags if they are "carried with the intent to conceal weapons or other prohibited items."

"To me, that looks like the cops can search your backpack for any reason," said Katy Parker, legal director of the ACLU North Carolina. "If you have no standards, it risks racial profiling, or other profiling."

The city of Charlotte is worried about violence during the four-day convention, which is being held at the Time Warner Cable Arena in September.

In creating the ordinances, city officials said they worked with cities that have held political conventions.

City Attorney Bob Hagemann told council members last Monday he believes the changes pass constitutional muster.

"We think we have been very generous in terms of First Amendment rights," Hagemann said in an interview on Friday.

The city reached out to the ACLU last week for feedback on the proposed ordinances. Hagemann said Friday he will review the group's concerns. He added that the ACLU's concerns haven't been rejected and said "we may conclude there is merit in what (the group) has said."

The city is holding a public hearing on the ordinances tonight at the 6:30 p.m. City Council meeting.

One proposed change says someone "participating in, affiliated with, or present as a spectator at any festival or parade..." can't have a number of items. They include:

Bars, chains, shafts, cable, wire or lumber. In addition, paint guns, etching materials and spray paint containers also would be banned.

Obstruction instruments, such as pipes, wire, handcuffs, chains or padlocks.

A "container or object of sufficient weight that may be used as a projectile ... that could inflict serious injury ..."

Rocks, bottles, objects and bricks that are large enough to cause injury.

Fireworks and smoke bombs.

Body armor, shields, helmets or protective pads.

The ACLU said many of the prohibited items were reasonable.

But the group said it was concerned about other items that could be banned, including backpacks, duffle bags, satchels and coolers if they are carried "with the intent to conceal weapons."

Parker said she envisioned a scenario in which someone with a backpack could be searched without cause.

In addition, she said she was concerned about a ban on masks or scarves if "worn with the intent to hide's one identity while committing a crime."

She questioned how the police would know whether someone wearing a scarf was attempting to hide their identity.

Hagemann said there would extensive training to ensure the ordinances were enforced properly.

"The city attorneys won't be out there making these decisions," Parker said. "You have to have really good training of your police officers. It's about what happens on the street."

The proposed ordinances also would put an end to camping at old City Hall, which is part of the Occupy Charlotte movement.

Under the changes, protestors could stay on the old City Hall lawn all day and night and wouldn't be required to leave.

But they couldn't camp, sleep, store personal belongings or build any sort of temporary structure, according to the proposed ordinance. They also couldn't light a fire or a bonfire.

It's possible the new ordinance could be interpreted to allow protestors to sit on blankets or perhaps a chair. But sleeping would be prohibited.

"Technically there is no limit there on the hours in which one could demonstrate," Hagemann said. "If someone wants to do a candlelight vigil at midnight, they can do it. It's not sunup to sundown."

The camping has been allowed in part due to a loophole in current city ordinances, which doesn't address sleeping or camping on spaces designated as "public forums," such as the lawn around old City Hall.

Other such public forums include the plaza at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government and the section of Trade and Tryon Street, by the disc sculpture.

The city said Monday it expects to have a designated "protest route" on city streets for groups to march.

In addition, there will be a designated "protest zone" with sound amplification equipment near the convention site. Protest zones have been used in other cities holding political conventions, such as Boston for the 2004 DNC.

Charlotte said it will probably accept permit applications for the protest route by this spring. Hagemann said it will hold a "content neutral" lottery to grant the permits.

While there will be a designated protest zone, the city will continue to allow picketing on city sidewalks. One person may picket - or a group may picket - so long as they don't obstruct vehicular traffic, Hagemann said. In addition, picketers can't obstruct the sidewalk so people can't walk by, or can't get in or out of a building.

The city has requested - but doesn't require - that picketers with more than 50 people should give Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police two days advance notice before their protest.

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