Disorderly events

Ordinance irks ACLU, back up for review

Of all the things the City Council could have done better last year, the disorderly events ordinance is the one that keeps coming to mind for Mayor Andy Holcombe.

He’s so concerned about it, in fact, that before going on vacation recently he wrote to the city clerk asking that it be put back on the council’s agenda.

The ordinance would have gone on next Tuesday’s agenda regardless—Jan. 15 is when Debbie Presson will report on the results of a petition drive for its repeal (the effort did not get sufficient valid signatures to qualify for the ballot).

But Holcombe, who voted for the ordinance, said it will be opened for further discussion and possible amending.

“ ‘Well, let’s try to get it better'—that was my take on it,” said Holcombe, a housing-rights attorney.

Last fall, the council passed the ordinance 6-1. The public wasn’t nearly that supportive—4,940 people signed the referendum petition. When the City Clerk’s Office took a random sample of 500 signatures, only 64.2 percent of them were valid. Projected to the whole, that meant the petition fell short by about 1,150 signatures.

Still, an issue that got nearly 5,000 people to unite can’t be ignored. Besides, it won’t just go away.

The most recent group to weigh in is the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which in a letter to the council declared that the ordinance violates the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble. “The law would allow the police to disperse a large crowd of peaceful demonstrators because three minors were present in violation of Chico’s curfew ordinance, or because a single person in the crowd had contraband in his pocket,” the letter, written by staff attorney Michael Risher, states.

The ACLU charge is in keeping with a fundamental complaint about the ordinance: that it is too broad and vague.

While the ordinance was originally intended to help police keep parties mellow by allowing them to disperse crowds in a less-obtrusive way, it had the unintended consequence of fueling distrust toward the police, Holcombe said—and the intention to keep the public safe somehow got lost in the phraseology.

It was drafted so police would have legal authority to disperse crowds before they got out of control. Until recently, the police have either “bluffed” to get crowds to disperse or had to wait until a law was violated before they could step in. The ordinance made it so police could step in with circumstantial evidence of a single felonious action or a combination of three misdemeanor violations and city ordinance infractions.

This allows police officers to stop a party before it escalates.

However, the Police Department didn’t want it to seem like a specific age group was being targeted, so when writing the ordinance it added all sorts of other events that could possibly grow disorderly: funerals, cook-offs, walkathons, demonstrations, dances, wedding processions, etc.

It’s the range of these other events, and the vagueness of what qualifies as an “infraction,” that has civil libertarians upset.

The mayor would like to see the ordinance narrowed so there is no real or perceived infringement of the First Amendment. Holcombe would also like the new ordinance to clarify what has to happen before police get the legal authority to stop a party.

“So,” he wrote to Presson, “in what I hope is not an over-abundance of New Year’s optimism, I’d like to ask the council to try to get it better.”