Virginia appeals court: Men had no free-association right to trespass

Thursday, August 12, 1999

Two men convicted of trespassing in a public housing complex did not have their First Amendment free-association rights violated, a Virginia state appeals court has ruled.

Keith Collins and Christian Blaylock were convicted in 1997 of trespassing for entering a public housing complex in Leesburg. City police officers, who were authorized by housing authorities to issue trespass notices, found Collins and Blaylock in different apartments in the complex after they had already been issued notices months earlier to stay off the property.

The officers arrested the two men on separate occasions, and both were later convicted before a trial court. On appeal, the cases were consolidated — or joined — because they presented the same legal issue — whether the defendants' trespass arrests were invalid because they violated First Amendment free-association rights.

Although the First Amendment does not specifically mention a right of association, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that the amendment does provide protection for two types of association: intimate association and expressive association.

“Intimate association” refers to close human relationships, such as marriage, upon which the state has no power to intrude. Expressive association refers to associating for the purpose of engaging in First Amendment-protected activity. Under this right, people may associate with others to exercise their rights to freedom of speech, assembly, religion or petition.

In Collins v. Commonwealth, the Virginia appeals court determined that the defendants failed to show that their free-association rights had been violated. “In this case, [the defendants] failed to show how their barment from the premises of Loudoun House deprives them of their First Amendment freedom of association under either formulation of the right,” the court wrote in its Aug. 10 opinion.

Quoting the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dallas v. Stanglin, the Virginia court noted that the First Amendment's protection of expressive association does not extend to “a generalized right of social association.”

The court noted that before and during trial, the defendants were able to exclude from evidence “the circumstances under which police issued trespass notices” barring the defendants from the housing complex.

Partly for this reason, the court concluded that the defendants “failed to present facts demonstrating that their interest in gaining access to the premises of Loudoun House implicates an interest protected by the First Amendment right of association.”

Randy Davis, assistant director of communications for the state attorney general's office said that “Attorney General Mike Earley is pleased but not surprised at the court's affirmation of these convictions. There never was any authority for the defendants' due-process claims, no First Amendment violations and no need for a hearing to be held before trespass notices are issued. The court's ruling further safeguards the rights of property owners to decide who should and should not be allowed on their property.”

The attorney for the defendants was in court today and unavailable for comment.