- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2000

A law that would require people to identify themselves to police officers is being considered in Richmond, but civil libertarians and blacks say the effort to reduce crime raises concerns about racism and rights violations.

The nine-member Richmond City Council was to vote on the measure Monday night but postponed the vote after its sponsor, 3rd District council member W. Randolph "Bill" Johnson, said he needed more time to research the issue.

The city's commonwealth's attorney, David M. Hicks, told the council that he thought the legislation was unconstitutional, and that he would not enforce it.

The proposed law says that people must identify themselves to a police officer if the officer thinks the "surrounding circumstances are such as to indicate to a reasonable person that the public safety requires such identification."

Mr. Johnson did not return phone calls seeking comment, but supporters of the law believe it would help curtail violence and drug dealing in the city.

Reva Trammell, the city's 8th District council member, said she sees no problem with the law because it could help police sweep the streets of drugs and violence.

"It would just be another tool for the police officers to use," Ms. Trammell said. "We've had so many murders in my district and so many unsolved murders in my district."

Constituents, she said, are calling in droves to support the law.

But Kent Willis, executive director of the state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Richmond ordinance could threaten a person's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

"They give far too much authority to detain and question a person," Mr. Willis said. "We believe that the law as written violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution even if its use is limited to high-crime areas."

Manoli Loupassi, a 1st District council member, said the law isn't necessary and could have unintended and unwanted consequences.

"Basically, it's if you are standing on the street and in a public place, they can stop and ask you a question like who you are and where you live," Mr. Loupassi said. "But what's the purpose of that? … We're not a police state."

Mr. Willis said the law could be enforced in a "racist way" since police officers may target blacks, many of whom live in the poorer, high-crime areas of the city.

The Rev. Gwen C. Hedgepeth, 9th District council member, said she understands the desire to get gangs and drugs off the streets, but adds the "blanket law" on the table goes too far.

"It gives another opportunity for black men … to get locked up and have a record," Mrs. Hedgepeth said. "I could see it unevenly spread out and become a racial issue, and that's the last thing I want to see happen."

Mr. Johnson proposed a similar law two years ago but withdrew it after an outcry from the black community likened it to "apartheid."

A similarly worded law is on the books in Virginia Beach and Arlington County.

The Arlington County ordinance allows police officers to ask people to identify themselves and is used when witnesses to crimes refuse to tell officers who they are, said Richard E. Trodden, the county's commonwealth's attorney. He says it is rarely used, but people who refuse to identify themselves can be arrested.

"It's a question as to whether it is being applied appropriately," said Mr. Trodden, a Democrat, who added he has not prosecuted many cases under the law.

The Arlington County ordinance has already been upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court.

In 1985, the court ruled the law aligned with a previous 1968 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that gave police officers the right to stop an individual if they have a reasonable suspicion that a person was taking part in a crime.

Mr. Willis said neither the Arlington County law nor Richmond's proposed measure follows the high court's decision, which came about as part of Terry vs. Ohio.

"It's far too vague and it's not related to the activities to the action of the individual who is stopped," Mr. Willis said. "Terry requires reasonable suspicion, while this ordinance only requires some vague notion that the public safety is at issue or the public safety is threatened."

The Richmond City Council will take up the issue again at its Nov. 27 meeting.

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