Find of the Month

July 2015 - Loitering

In 1967, City Council was considering what was referred to as the “loitering law.” The ordinance would make it unlawful “to loiter or prowl in a place, at a time, or in a manner, and under circumstances that manifest an unlawful purpose or warrant alarm for the safety of persons or property in the vicinity.” Examples of suspicious behavior included “flight by the actor upon appearance of a peace officer, refusal to identify himself, or manifestly endeavoring to conceal himself or any object.” Any person deemed suspicious should not be arrested without being given an opportunity, “if practicable under the circumstances,” to explain his or her presence.

After reading a newspaper article about the proposed ordinance, Seattle resident Patrick Nesser wrote a strongly worded letter to the Council expressing his opposition. He began by saying that he had previously made verbal comments “during the ‘Garbage Crisis,’ ‘the Go-Go fiasco,’ ‘the Namu in the Center mess,’ the ‘Bullfight baloney,’ ‘the Timothy Leary ban,’ and ‘the Light Show comedy routine,’ but that he had never before submitted written comment on an issue before the Council. He asked Councilmembers in this case to “be careful before you have another ‘mess’ on your hands.”

Nesser wrote that he understood the police chief’s interest in reducing the crime rate in the city, saying he shared that concern himself – “but I must say an ordinance such as is proposed is not only legally unconstitutional, but morally is a ‘black eye’ to any so-called ‘forward-looking’ metropolitan area. Who is to say when or how a person looks ‘suspicious’? A patrolman, who after all is human first and a police officer second – subject to all the prejudices and emotional responses as the rest of us??”

In addition to Nesser’s letter, the Council also received a petition signed by 36 citizens opposed to the bill. The petition stated that “every American has a constitutional right to just stand around or walk around without a purpose, and without having to give any account of himself to police.” Despite these protests, and those of many who attended a public hearing on the bill, the Council went on to pass the law, which became Ordinance 95876.