Thursday, October 18, 2001

Drug-zone law fails court test

Cincinnati saw it as tool

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — The Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a 1996 Cincinnati law intended to keep drug offenders out of Over-the-Rhine.

        The court ruled 6-1 that the city's drug-exclusion zone ordinance violates a person's basic right to travel Ohio's public roads, sidewalks and highways. Though the court agreed Cincinnati has a compelling interest to keep neighborhoods and parks drug-free, it said city officials went too far.

        “The ordinance also attacks conduct that is completely innocent,” wrote Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer.

        “A person subject to the exclusion ordinance may not enter a drug-exclusion zone to speak with counsel, to visit family, to attend church, to receive emergency medical care, to go to a grocery store, or just to stand on a street corner and look at a blue sky,” he wrote.

        City Council passed the drug exclusion law in 1996 as another tool to reduce the flow of illegal narcotics in neighborhoods such as Over-the-Rhine.

        The law allowed city police officers to arrest anyone recently convicted of a list of drug offenses as a trespasser if caught within a drug exclusion zone.

        Councilman Phil Heimlich, author of the ordinance, wants the city to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

        “This law was the best tool our police officers had to combat the drug traffic in Over-the-Rhine,” Mr. Heimlich said.

        The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in the case of George Burnett, a neighborhood resident who was convicted in February 1988 on a misdemeanor charge of possessing drug paraphernalia.

        Excluded from Over-the-Rhine for a year, Mr. Burnett was arrested in the zone five months later and convicted of criminal trespass.

        The court's decision echoes oral arguments from Bruce F. Thompson, a Hamilton County public defender who took on Mr. Burnett's case. Mr. Thompson urged the high court to throw out the law as a violation of First Amendment rights.

        Six justices decided the law violated a person's right to travel within the state, saying it is a natural extension of the right to freely travel between states.

        The court also ruled the law violates the Ohio Constitution because it exceeds punishments for drug offenses set by the General Assembly.

        The drug exclusion zone has not been enforced since last year, when the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio declared it unconstitutional in a separate case.

        The sole dissenter on the Ohio Supreme Court, Justice Deborah Cook, disagreed the U.S. Constitution provides a right to travel, but agreed that the law violated the state constitution.


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