Loitering Law Moves Slowly, But Advances to Full Senate

Sen. Novelle Francis (D-STX) presides over Tuesday’s Senate session. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)
Sen. Novelle Francis (D-STX), sponsor of the loitering bill. (File photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)

A bill to strengthen the loitering law and increase penalties for violations moved out of the Committee on Rules and Judiciary Friday and headed for the full Senate, but it is still suffering birthing pains.

The bill has taken hits from people who think it might be used as a weapon against the poor and might violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects against arbitrary arrests.

After much debate, the Rules Committee gave the bill a favorable recommendation, as the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Novelle Francis Jr., urged, “It is time to quit talking and do something.”

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Sen. Alicia Barnes cast the sole dissenting vote. She said one of the unintended consequences of the bill would be more young, black men in jail. She asked why the emphasis was always on enforcement of laws instead of on the prevention of crimes.

Samuel Joseph, chief public defender of the Office of the Territorial Public Defender, read a seven-page testimony that mostly found fault with the law.

“The proposed bill, in its current form, will face significant constitutional challenge based on vagueness, over breadth and as being violative of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” he said.

One section of the bill was so over-broad that a person could be arrested if he spent some time in front of a church deciding whether to go in or not, Joseph said. He also had a problem with the bill’s definition of factors that could get one arrested for loitering. One factor could be a person making a hasty departure when an officer arrives on the scene and the other was a person not identifying himself or herself when an officer asked. Neither of those actions are criminal in nature by themselves.

Joseph laid out a scenario of unintended consequences.

“The Virgin Islands, like most Caribbean Islands, is unique in its own right. We have many norms and customs that shape and impact our lives. Imagine a Virgin Islands where individuals could not go outside of their homes and catch some breeze or greet a passerby,” Joseph said. “One where you could not share an alcoholic beverage with anyone in public. Imagine the Virgin Islands, where the older men who play dominoes in various public places were restricted from doing so. A place where there could be no stopping and conversing in the vicinity of a government building or where you could walk down to Christiansted Fort and sit and clear your head. I do not think the sponsors of the proposed bill intended this, but this would be the result.”

USVI Attorney General Denise N. George said the law was constitutional, and the Justice Department would prosecute cases under such a law. When asked by Sen. Steven Payne whether she thought it wise to drop the incarceration part of the penalty for loitering, she said no.

Adriane Dudley, a member of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce, said the bill is a move the chamber supports.

“The strengthening of the loitering law and increasing the penalty for loitering has the full and passionate endorsement of the chamber,” she said. “Downtown loiterers are unlicensed, unruly and aggressive. Verbal harassment is routine, and online travel reviews are unanimous in their disapproval of this absurd practice.”

Her testimony caused Sen. Myron Jackson to question whether two different issues were not under discussion – loiters and barkers.

Three other bills sailed through the committee’s early Friday evening session with barely a negative note and are headed to a hearing before the full Senate.

– Bill No. 33-0040 would amend the V.I. Code to require each passenger in the rear seat of a vehicle to wear a safety belt.
– Bill No. 33-0086- calls for amending the code to require all restaurants and establishments that sell food to post signs that demonstrate appropriate first aid for choking.
– And Bill No. 33-0092 would amend the code by adding a new section to provide for the continuing operation of the Judicial Branch of the Virgin Islands in the event of a natural disaster or other emergencies. Francis, the sponsor of the bill, said “lessons learned” during the 2017 hurricanes showed the need for this bill.

Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw did cast a negative vote on the back-seat, seat-belt requirement, saying it was not inclusive enough. It did not carry any requirement for seatbelts in taxicabs or buses.

Attending the hearing were committee members Francis Sarauw, Jackson, Barnes, Kenneth Gittens and Steven Payne. Non-committee member Oakland Benta also attended.

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