- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 1, 2003

Police went too far in arresting a father for visiting his family in a public housing complex, the Supreme Court was told yesterday as it reviewed a policy restricting visitors in crime-plagued government apartments.
The Supreme Court is using the prosecution of Kevin Hicks to decide how communities can fight street gangs and other troublemakers in public housing without violating constitutional free-speech rights.
Justices seemed concerned about the far-reaching policy in Richmond, but they also questioned whether the case should revolve around the issue of free speech, as Mr. Hicks' attorney argued. They could send the case back to Virginia courts to consider other issues.
Mr. Hicks' mother and two children live in a complex that has become a type of visitor-free zone. Streets and sidewalks are designated private property, with signs warning people they face prosecution for unauthorized visits.
Mr. Hicks was arrested twice for trespassing and barred from the complex. He spent a year in jail after he visited the complex anyway in 1999. He said he was dropping off diapers when he was arrested.
"One would think he would certainly have a basis to visit his family," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told a government attorney.
State Solicitor William Hurd said that Mr. Hicks had previous trouble with authorities. He said the strict policy was needed to protect poor families who "lived in the middle of an open-air drug market." It keeps out drug dealers, abusers of women and other criminals, he said.
"It doesn't just ban drug dealers," responded Justice John Paul Stevens. His concern was repeated by some of his colleagues.
Mr. Hicks' attorney argued that the streets and sidewalks beside the complex lead to a school and voting place. Thus, they must not be closed to all but residents and approved visitors, Steven Benjamin said.
"The public uses streets and sidewalks every day to walk, jog, visit neighbors, solicit business, canvass, protest, march and assemble for various reasons," Mr. Benjamin wrote in court papers.
The Supreme Court has dealt with several public housing crime cases in recent years.
In 1999, the court struck down a Chicago law aimed at preventing gang members and their friends from lingering in public "with no apparent purpose." The court said the antiloitering ordinance violated the rights of those arrested because they did not have adequate notice of what was forbidden.
Last year, the justices ruled that agencies may evict entire families from public housing for drug use by one member.
Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said the case is important because of crime problems in the nation's public housing.
"If a public housing project is considered a place anybody can go into, then drug dealers and gangs have a license to make that their territory, and in many places they have," he said.
The Virginia Supreme Court threw out the 1997 policy used to convict Mr. Hicks on the grounds that it harmed people who had legitimate free-speech reasons for visiting public housing. The Commonwealth of Virginia appealed, defending the Hicks conviction and the city ordinance.
American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Mark Lopez told the court in a filing that troublemakers can be punished, but "Hicks is guilty of nothing more" than visiting the neighborhood where his mother and children live.

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