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ACLU Sues Narragansett Over “Orange Sticker” Policy

Posted: May 23, 2008|Category: Due Process Category: Privacy

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The Rhode Island ACLU has today filed a lawsuit against the Town of Narragansett, challenging the constitutionality of its highly-publicized ordinance which allows police to charge tenants and landlords with allowing, and to place orange stickers on houses that have allegedly been the site of, “unruly gatherings.” The lawsuit, filed in R.I. Superior Court by ACLU volunteer attorney H. Jefferson Melish, is on behalf of the URI Student Senate, as well as four students and three landlords who have been affected by enforcement of the ordinance. The suit argues that the ordinance violates the plaintiffs’ rights to procedural and substantive due process, privacy and freedom of association. 

The lawsuit notes that the ordinance “gives sole discretion to the police department” to post the stickers on houses where “unruly gatherings” have allegedly occurred, “without any opportunity for a hearing or appeal by owner or renter.” The suit further calls the ordinance unconstitutionally vague, as it “fails to provide a clear definition of prohibited behavior, merely listing examples,” and thus “invites arbitrary and capricious enforcement” by police. The suit also calls the ordinance “overinclusive” by imposing liability on individuals who have committed no crime but are “simply present at or associated with a location or an event” at which an “unruly gathering” allegedly takes place.

Three of the plaintiffs – David Keach, Timothy DeMerchant and Michael Spatcher – face pending charges in district court of violating the ordinance. Two other plaintiff students – Warren Byrne and Ben Cuddy – were evicted from their residence after police posted an orange sticker on the house they were renting, and then were forced to pay rent for the balance of the school year for both that residence and their new one. Three other plaintiffs – Walter Manning and Steven and Karen Jedson – are landlords whose houses have been pasted with an orange sticker. They claim this has adversely affected their ability to rent the houses. The URI Student Senate has condemned the “orange sticker policy” as a discriminatory policy aimed at students to shame them, much like a “scarlet letter.” 

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the ordinance unconstitutional and halt its enforcement. The ACLU expects a hearing next week on its request for a temporary restraining order against the law.

ACLU attorney Melish said today: “This challenge seeks to stop the enforcement of an ordinance that targets URI students and those who rent to them.  The ‘orange sticker’ ordinance attempts to shame and humiliate students and landlords, and violates their rights to due process and equal protection of the laws.” RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown added: “We recognize the tension that has existed for some time in the community between students and some of the town’s other residents. While town officials certainly have the right to address illegal behavior engaged in by students, they must do so within constitutional bounds. We believe that the Town’s ‘scarlet letter’ approach crosses that line and should not be allowed to stand.”

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