Unringing the bell: ‘Obsolete’ ordinances get public hearing for repeal

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Every so often, cities take time to weed out old ordinances regulating horse droppings, dwarf tossing, flashing disco lights or non-rewound VHS cassettes. OK, we made the last two up.

For Lansing City Councilman Brian Jackson, the proposed repeal of eight city ordinances, set for a public hearing Monday, is a bit more serious than a routine house cleaning of old city laws.

The ordinances touch on a wide range of conduct, from playing in streets and bringing dogs to parks, to using profane language in schools and loitering where drug use or prostitution occur.

All of them are misdemeanors punishable by up to 90 days in jail, a $500 fine and two years of probation. And each of them helps to cast a wide net over lawful behavior, giving police officers far too much discretion in Lansing to arrest, handcuff and book people into jail, Jackson said.

One of the ordinances under consideration for repeal prohibits “annoying persons.”

“This might be our most infamous one,” Jackson said at a March 22 Council meeting. “Everybody has a joke about it — and everybody could be guilty, and thrown in jail.”

Eight of 15 ordinances Jackson brought to Council in February for possible repeal are set for a public hearing via Zoom at 7 p.m. Monday (April 12). The other seven will likely be heard on April 26.

Before the Council set Monday’s hearing, the Committee for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, chaired by Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley, vetted them one by one, along with City Attorney James Smiertka and Police Chief Daryl Green. Smiertka said most have been around for ages.

“Some have not been used,” he said. “Some are covered by other ordinances or state laws.”

Added Spitzley: “Either there are other ordinances on the books to enforce something like that, or they’re unconstitutional, or they’re just obsolete.” Jackson also said that undesired conduct barred by the dated city ordinances would still be illegal under a different ordinance or state law.

“Even with playing in the streets — you still can’t obstruct a public right of way, you still can’t make a disturbance, you still can’t cuss up the schools, so don’t worry,” Jackson explained.

In 2014, Grand Rapids repealed an ordinance similar to the locally “willfully annoying persons” ordinance in Lansing. In an NPR interview, former Grand Rapids City Attorney Catherine Mish speculated that the ordinance sprang from a concern about behavior that would now be legally described as “stalking.”

“They were trying to describe stalking before we had that word,” Mish said.

Smiertka speculated that some of the old ordinances, including one that prohibits “climbing or defacing trees” and another that prohibits bringing “animals, vehicles or bicycles onto any park or onto any grassplot in any street,” sprang from complaints from local residents over the years.

“You get one or two Council people who get lobbied by neighborhood groups,” he said. “They introduce an ordinance, fellow councilmembers go along with it and you get it on the books.”

Smiertka said his office joined the Police Department and officials in the courts system in recommending that the ordinance barring playing in the streets be repealed.

“There’s another ordinance that says you can’t obstruct traffic,” Smiertka explained. “No one in our office has seen anyone charged with playing in the streets.”

Two ordinances up for repeal prohibit “loitering in public places where prostitution or solicitation for lewd conduct occurs” and “loitering where controlled substances or drug paraphernalia is sold, used, etc.”

Residents could easily comply — if they followed police activity on short wave radio or had retrocognition of past events on any given street corner or sidewalk in the city.

“You’re subject to arrest for frequenting a place where drugs have been used once in the past, a long time ago, that you never knew about,” Jackson said. “People should not be subject to a stop and frisk just because of where they live.”

Another ordinance bars students from borrowing “any money or thing of value” from another.

“That one is just strange,” Jackson said.

He told the Council last month that no prosecutions under the 1986 ordinance have been reported. The Council also had a chuckle at the March 22 meeting over another ordinance prohibiting “profane, indecent or immoral language” in schools or “any property adjacent.”

Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar, who is known to use salty language, attended the meeting remotely, from the principal’s office at St. Casimir School. Council President Peter Spadafore jokingly warned her not to inadvertently commit a violation before the ordinance was repealed.

“I could probably fund half the city budget if this was actually enforced,” Dunbar shot back.

Underneath the jokes, Jackson’s repeal proposal is part of a statewide and nationwide push to tighten the parameters of law enforcement.

Jackson found himself prosecuting some of the ordinances in question as an assistant city attorney in 2015. As the civil rights protests of last year unfolded alongside heated debate over the disparate impact of run-ins with police in vulnerable communities, Jackson wondered how, as a Councilman, he could advance police reform. Repealing old laws was one small part.

“What we do is make laws and we repeal laws. There’s a bunch of them we don’t have an interest in prosecuting anymore,” Jackson explained. “It is unfair to community members and law enforcement to allow the police to use its sole discretion on whether to investigate or arrest a person for the petty conduct prohibited in these ordinances.”

The same spirit of reform underpins a Michigan law that took effect April 1. Under the law, most misdemeanors and ordinance violations that carry a penalty of up to one year in jail became eligible for a ticket instead of an arrest. Officers cite alleged violators by handing them an “appearance ticket,” which requires them to show up in court rather than face arrest.

Smiertka said that new state law “might come into play” in Lansing.

“It should decrease interaction between police and the suspect,” Smiertka said. “It’s one less person you have to transport to the jail, one less person you have to handcuff, book and hold until arraignment the next morning, if they can’t pay bond.”

He also expected the law to decrease the city’s exposure to civil litigation.

“I’ve got to believe it will positively affect this office in having to defend losses against the police or the city,” he added. “I’m looking forward to that.”

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