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Judge Upholds Narragansett “Orange Sticker” Ordinance

Posted: January 22, 2010|Category: Due Process Category: Students' Rights

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The Rhode Island ACLU today expressed deep disappointment today at a decision by U.S. District Judge William Smith, upholding the constitutionality of the Town of Narragansett’s highly-publicized “orange sticker” ordinance.

The ordinance authorizes police both to charge tenants and landlords for allowing “unruly gatherings,” and to place orange stickers on houses that have allegedly been the site of such gatherings. Under the ordinance, the orange sticker cannot be removed until the end of the school year without financial penalty, regardless of the presence or absence of the original ‘unruly’ tenants who allegedly engaged in a violation of the law. The lawsuit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorney H. Jefferson Melish, was on behalf of the URI Student Senate, as well as four students and three landlords who have been affected by enforcement of the ordinance.

Among other things, the ACLU argued that the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague and violated the plaintiffs’ due process rights by allowing police to affix the large orange stickers to the front door of a rental property with no opportunity for a hearing either before or after the posting. In upholding the ordinance, the judge held that police officers’ discretion was limited since the sticker could be posted only if the police concluded that an underlying violation of the law, such as underage drinking, had taken place at the residence. However, the judge acknowledged that police did not actually have to charge anybody with the underlying “violation.” Thus, RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown noted, “students and landlords are left in a legal limbo with no remedy. Since no hearing need be conducted either before or after a sticker is posted, and since police need not charge individuals with the offense that forms the basis for their decision that an ‘unruly gathering’ has occurred, both students and affected landlords have no real mechanism to contest the validity of the basis for the police officer’s action.”

Although the judge agreed that “the result sits uneasily,” he nonetheless held that the ordinance did not violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.

RI ACLU attorney Melish said today: “I am very disappointed by the ruling, as I believe we had compelling arguments about the ordinance’s unconstitutionality. Ultimately, the court did not address how the ordinance actually had been applied to our plaintiffs, whose experiences, we believe, had demonstrated the need for due process procedures.” The ACLU said that it would be deciding in the next few weeks whether to appeal the ruling.

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