Supreme Court again refuses to revive Cincinnati’s drug-free zones

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

CINCINNATI — The city’s attempt to block drug dealers from returning to neighborhoods where they were arrested has again been scuttled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

On June 9, the Court declined to hear the case, Cincinnati v. Johnson 02-1452, involving the city’s attempt to set up drug-exclusion zones, which lower federal courts ruled were unconstitutional and “extreme.”

Last year, the high court refused to hear a similar case, Ohio v. Burnett that came up through Ohio’s state courts. The nation’s highest court let stand the Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling that banishing someone violated the constitutionally protected right to travel.

In commenting about the Court’s refusal to hear Cincinnati v. Johnson, David Pepper, a City Council member who led the push for the zones, said: “My sense of it was this case was dead for some time. The problem was that it was a blanket policy.”

The city approved the measure in 1996, hoping to suppress drug dealing in the crime- and drug-plagued Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Anyone convicted of drug offenses was prohibited from going into the area where they were arrested.

The law was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Patricia Johnson and Michael Au France. Johnson wound up barred from visiting the neighborhood where her grandchildren lived for three months even though a jury did not indict her on a marijuana trafficking charge. Au France was a homeless man arrested on multiple drug charges who couldn’t go to his lawyer’s office.

U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott struck down the ordinance in January 2000, siding with Johnson and Au France. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported last September that a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the ordinance was unconstitutional because it infringed on freedom of association and a person’s right to move freely in a public space. The majority also said the ban punished people twice for the same offense.

Lawyer Bernard Wong, who represented Johnson and Au France, called the exclusion zones “totalitarian.”

“The physical embodiment of freedom is the right to move,” he said.

The city unsuccessfully argued in court that people don’t have a fundamental right to travel.

After the concept was initially struck down in court, the City Council asked local judges to ban drug dealers from returning to neighborhoods as part of their probation.

“Some judges have been OK with it, some haven’t,” Pepper said. “The numbers aren’t as high as I’d like, but this is a tool.”

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