- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 24 (UPI) — The Supreme Court Friday agreed to hear argument on whether communities can keep non-residents out of the streets and open areas around a public housing complex as part of efforts to combat drug traffic.

The case comes out of Richmond, Va., where a state court ruled that the policy violated the free association guarantees of the First Amendment.

Besides guaranteeing freedom of religion and speech, the First Amendment protects "the right of the people peaceably to assemble."

But the kind of assembling that was taking place outside a Richmond public housing complex called Whitcomb Court was not the kind that communities apparently want to promote.

The public housing project was described as "an open air drug market" before the city took action.

The city passed an ordinance in June 1997 saying that the streets inside the project were "no longer needed for the public convenience," and deeded them to the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

The housing authority then erected signs every 100 feet along the streets of Whitcomb Court. The signs clearly warned against trespassing, and said that "unauthorized persons will be subject to arrest and prosecution."

Following a minor criminal conviction in April 1998, Kevin Lamont Hicks was barred from the property by a notice delivered just outside the courtroom.

In April 1999, he was convicted of trespassing at the court, but his $1,000 fine and 12-month sentence were suspended.

Hicks appealed, and an intermediate state court eventually ruled 6-5 in his favor. The intermediate court said the streets in Whitcomb Court remained a "public forum," and attempts by the housing authority to regulate speech there violated the First Amendment.

Virginia then appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, which also ruled for Hicks, but on different grounds. The Virginia Supreme Court said the ban was overly broad and infringed on Hicks's First Amendment rights.

The state then asked the Supreme Court of the United States for review.

Though not yet scheduled, the justices are to hear the case in late April. They should hand down a decision before the summer recess in late June or early July.

(02-371, Virginia vs. Hicks)

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