Walking while black
Neighbors say a vague law amounts to harassment
Adrienne Carmichael didn't understand how little it could take for her 17-year-old son to land in jail on a disorderly conduct charge.
"I thought [disorderly conduct] was if you got out of control with an officer," she says.
But a broadly worded category of the crime – known as "DC-6" – has emerged as a heated controversy in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, because it appears to allow police to arrest people simply for hanging out. Residents claim the charge amounts to an excuse for harassment.
DC-6 is the most frequent non-traffic offense cited by Atlanta police. As of Dec. 18, 7,551 DC-6 arrests — about 22 a day — were made in 2006, outpacing criminal trespass at 5,407 and drinking in public at 4,621.
Some City Council members and city officials weren't even familiar with the ordinance until it came to their attention at public meetings organized in the wake of the Nov. 21 home-invasion killing by police of an 88-year-old woman. At the most recent Jan. 6 public meeting organized by state Sen. Vincent Fort, residents from Vine City, the West End and other neighborhoods demanded to know why they and their neighbors have been "DC-6'ed" so often.
"To me, it's in direct contradiction to the Constitution," says Councilman Ivory Lee Young, whose district includes the Vine City street where Carmichael's son was arrested. "It sounds like lazy police work."
Carmichael told her son Robin's story at the Jan. 6 meeting. She says he was walking to his great-grandmother's house in September. A man who sat on the porch of an abandoned house asked Robin for a light. He stopped and lit the man's cigarette as a police officer pulled up, she says.
The officer asked Robin where he kept his drugs. When Robin told him he didn't have any, the officer searched him. Carmichael says the officer found nothing and then arrested her son for disorderly conduct in a known drug area.
"It seems to me police officers have made their own definitions of these charges," Carmichael says.
When Carmichael took her son to court, she says the citation couldn't be found and that his name wasn't on the docket. (Atlanta police couldn't find an incident report that correlated to the ticket number, either.) But she worries that a warrant could be issued for his arrest or that the ticket will pop up months later.
"The police are being paid to protect the citizens," Carmichael says. "Not to harass them."
According to the DC-6 ordinance: "It shall be unlawful for any person [to] ... be in or about any place where gaming or the illegal sale or possession of alcoholic beverages or narcotics or dangerous drugs is practiced, allowed or tolerated[.]"
What that means, essentially, is that a person can be arrested simply for being in what police designate as a "known drug area" — even if he or she just walks down the street or chats with a neighbor. That's problematic, says American Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Gerry Weber, because the law is so ambiguous that it invites discriminatory enforcement and therefore may be unconstitutional.
"It's one of those catch-all laws that police use when they can't think of any other charge," Weber says. "It's a street-clearing device."
Weber says the ACLU is seeking the right case for a legal challenge.
A police employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says there's no official list within the city that would designate a location as a hot spot for illegal activity. Instead, the employee says, identifying known drug areas is "all up to the officer's discretion."
There are signs that the topic has become a sensitive one for city officials. Atlanta Police refused to comment on DC-6. And another department employee, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, says police Chief Richard Pennington scolded zone majors at a recent staff meeting for citing DC-6 too often. The scolding came after one of the meetings in which residents complained, and the same day that CL requested DC-6 records.