Special Report: A ruling forces Portland to consider excluding suspects from drug-free zones instead of prosecuting them
[photo caption:] Al Jasper, owner of the Marco Polo Garden Restaurant in Old Town, supports exclusions from drug- and prostitution-free zones because he thinks they are more effective than arrests. "Let them skip one conviction because convictions don't mean a hell of a lot in Oregon anyway," he says.
Suspects arrested for possessing small amounts of drugs in Portland's drug-free zones might not face criminal charges under a policy police and prosecutors are considering.
Instead, the city might exclude them from the area for 90 days and arrest them for trespass if they return.
Officials say they are making the best of a defeat in court last week that crippled the city's experiment with drug-free and prostitution-free zones. Multnomah County Circuit Judge John A. Wittmayer ruled April 24 that the city could either exclude suspects or criminally prosecute them. To do both constitutes double jeopardy, being punished twice for the same offense, which violates state and federal constitutions, he ruled.
The ruling resulted in the dismissal of between 200 and 300 drug and prostitution cases in the past week, including about 100 suspects who were in jail awaiting trial.
The Multnomah County district attorney's office has said it will appeal Wittmayer's decision, but it could be 18 months before the Oregon Court of Appeals rules. In the meantime, law enforcement officials want to do whatever will stop drug sales, which might not be the same thing as punishing people through prosecution, said John Bradley of the Multnomah County district attorney's office.
"What we're trying to do is find what will best protect the public," Bradley said.
Officials hope to make a decision on a policy next week, but Bradley said it was too early to talk about specifics, such as what amount of drugs on a suspect would lead to criminal prosecution or whether the policy would be used in the city's prostitution-free zones.
If forced to choose, most residents and business owners in the zones people appear to support the exclusions because the city ordinances have done a better job of ridding areas of crime than conventional prosecution. Mayor Vera Katz said she tends to agree.
Al Jasper, who owns the Marco Polo Garden Restaurant in Old Town, said the exclusions are more effective than arrests because they allow police to automatically arrest someone if the person returns to the area.
"So you lose a possible couple convictions," Jasper said. "If the idea is to get them out of the area, go for the exclusion the first time."
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Drugs: Most residents support exclusion
Other residents think the exclusions could be more effective than simply arresting suspects, who probably will end up back on the street anyway.
"Based on what I hear, it's a moot point, because if there's not enough room for people in prison, what does that do?" said Scott Lanier, who lives one block east of the Beech drug-free zone. "There's no deterrent. If you can't put them in jail, it doesn't work."
But some residents think the policy would send the wrong message, especially to young people who need to weigh the possibility of jail when they think of getting into drugs.
"I think it sends the message that the system is overwhelmed," said Stacy Cooper of the Boise neighborhood in Northeast Portland. "I want an arrest on their record."
But at least one critic says exclusions pit neighborhood against neighborhood.
The zones don't get at the real issues of drug use, said Sandra Bennett, an anti-drug crusader who directs Drug Watch Oregon.
"Why, so they can do drugs in another neighborhood?" she said.
Northeast Precinct Cmdr. Alan Orr said this week at a neighborhood meeting that Portland police had learned from dealing with prostitution on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard that targeting customers was the most effective way of ending that crime problem. That could mean that excluding drug buyers is more effective than prosecutions, which he compared to foul balls in baseball.
"You'll never get them out," he said.
Katz said she was aware of the proposal to exclude rather than prosecute offenders.
"We're looking into that," Katz said. "That may work even better. If there's going to be more drugs on them, they'll be prosecuted."
[A graphic accompanying this story, titled "Exclusion Zones," illustrates exactly where Portland's drug- and prostitution-free zones are located. The graphic is virtually identical to one published in a related March 27, 1997 article.]
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