In Dallas, chatting on a street corner can get you in trouble
To hear Edgar Simmons tell it, he stopped his car to talk to a friend, and the cops thought he was a drug dealer.
It was a little after 1 p.m. on July 13, and Simmons, a retired 69-year old African-American, was en route to Richardson to pick up his wife, Cora, from work. On the corner of Caddo Street and Munger Avenue, he saw some friends of his--buddies he's had for some 40 years. Simmons wasn't surprised to see them. Every day, they all congregate on the corner of Caddo and Munger. "We just bullshit for a while," Simmons says.
But on this day, Simmons couldn't b.s. He stopped the 1997 black, four-door Infiniti he and Cora share and rolled down the window long enough to tell his friends, "I got to pick up my wife, but I'll holler at you when I get back."
Simmons rolled up the window and took off. "And that's when the cops put the lights on me," he says.
The Dallas City Code contains two ordinances known in the city attorney's office as the manifestation ordinances. One is for prostitution, the other for drug dealing. They're minor offenses, each a Class C misdemeanor carrying a maximum fine of $500, but the phrasing in each is so vague, it's unconstitutional, says Mike Howard, president of the Dallas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
And worse, Howard says, "It's racism."
Take the prostitution ordinance. Anyone can be ticketed for "manifesting the purpose of engaging in prostitution" if one "beckons to, stops or attempts to stop, or engages passers-by in conversation, or repeatedly stops or attempts to stop motor vehicles..." And the drug dealing ordinance? Anyone can be ticketed for that if he or she is "at a location frequented by persons who use, possess or sell drugs" or "repeatedly engages in conversation with passers-by, whether on foot or in a vehicle."
Howard says since drug deals and prostitution occur primarily in poor, minority neighborhoods, these ordinances are "invitations to bigotry."
That's what Simmons thinks, too. The officer who pulled him over July 13, Jeffery Price, issued Simmons a ticket for manifesting the purpose of selling illegal drugs and chemicals. "It's bogus...I didn't do anything wrong," Simmons says. But Price, without finding any drugs in Simmons' car or on his person, and without needing to find any, thought he did. And that's all that matters, Simmons says. (Through the Dallas Police Department's media relations team, Price declined to comment.)
Oh, and before Price let Simmons go that day, he told the old man something else: He had yet to pay his prostitution manifestation ticket from earlier in the year.
The prostitution ordinance was made into city law in 1976. The drug dealing ordinance passed in 1988.
Robert Micklos, who spent the past five years as chief prosecutor for municipal courts before moving to the city attorney's general litigation office last month, says the ordinances were passed to--what else?--help cops fight crime. In the years since they've been on the books, there's been a "steady stream of tickets issued," he says. (The Dallas Observer made an open records request for the number of manifestation tickets issued in 2003. As of press time, the Observer awaits its answer, though Howard says he hears of many tickets being issued each week.)
Neither ordinance, Micklos says, has been found unconstitutional. "And they've certainly been there awaiting any sort of challenge." Nor has either ordinance been found to be racist, Micklos says. "That's unfortunate that someone would make that claim."
Howard says it's a bad logic Micklos is using: Because no one's yet found it unconstitutional doesn't mean it isn't; because no one's cried racism doesn't mean he shouldn't.
But Micklos is resolute. The ordinances work so well, he says, the city of Houston has adopted similar laws in the past year. (But according to Houston's code, only the prostitution ordinance has been made law.)
Houston's grasp of constitutional law notwithstanding, do the Dallas ordinances work? Do cops in Dallas actually use them to clear the streets of criminals?
"To be honest, we don't use them that much," says Deputy Chief Julian Bernal, who oversees DPD's narcotics and vice squads. Bernal's guys are more interested in locking up a pimp or a drug dealer than giving him a ticket, so they wait until they have the evidence for something more substantial than a Class C misdemeanor. Besides, Bernal says, a lot of his guys work undercover. Issuing a ticket for violation of a manifestation ordinance would blow the cover and keep the bad guys on the streets.
So who's issuing them? "Patrol," Bernal says.
Patrol officers who, Howard argues, aren't as versed in the nuances of street life as their specialized counterparts.
Simmons appeared in court October 27 to fight the drug dealing charge. He told Judge Melodee Armstrong that any black person could be ticketed for his offense. Even a deacon. Even a judge like Armstrong, who's also black.
Simmons said he's too old to deal drugs, and tired besides. He said one of the few pleasures in his life is standing on the corner of Caddo and Munger, talking it up with friends. And that's all they've ever done.
Armstrong found Simmons not guilty. (Simmons also beat the rap for his prostitution charge. "Crazy stuff," he says of both.)
Today, he thinks the cops tried to intimidate him, tried to keep him from his hangout. "And I'm old enough to remember the days when you couldn't go where you wanted to go," he says. "But this isn't [then]."
When asked how often he stops by Caddo and Munger, despite the tickets he received, Simmons laughs.
"Every day." --Paul Kix
Been There, Done That
It all sounded so familiar to the reporters here at the Dallas Observer: Young writers decide to go the traditional newspaper route only to discover that the paint-by-numbers journalism world isn't for them, so they quit and go searching for something more fulfilling. But usually it takes a few years in the business for reporters to play out that scenario--we're notoriously slow on the uptake. That wasn't the case for a few University of Texas at Dallas kids, though.
After working for UTD's official student paper for a time, sophomores Neha Chinei (who was a staff writer for the Mercury) and Clarisse Profilet (who served in the Mercury's Life and Arts department) decided they'd had enough.
"It wasn't our type of writing," Profilet says. "It was stifling, really. There wasn't any room for creativity. And I didn't want to go to work for USA Today, either. I just wanted something more satisfying."
Rather than bitching about the paper or quitting and then wasting away on the couch, Chinei and Profilet went with a more proactive approach. After talking to one of their professors, they decided to start their own paper--an alternative publication called A Modest Proposal. That was back in March. Over the next few months they tried to persuade the UTD faculty to fund a new publication. Despite the fact that some were skeptical, the duo plugged along and finally secured funding for their monthly publication from administration higher-ups who were sympathetic to the cause. The first issue came out in October, and another one for November-December was just finished. Still, there are growing pains.
"It was completely worthwhile for us," says Chinei, the paper's "director." Profilet is the editor in chief, and there are a handful of other students dedicated to the paper. "This is the kind of writing I've wanted to do--more opinion, less stodgy. Just more freedom in general. But we've had to work hard to get people to notice us. When we first put stacks of the paper out in the student union, someone kept taking them away. So we'd put them out there again, and they'd take them away again. That went on for a while. But even that was worth it. Since then, we've gotten a lot of feedback from people who are interested in reading something different." --John Gonzalez
Show Us the Money
A city council candidate and principal backer of a charter election for a strong mayor system in Dallas called the Dallas Observer last week to strenuously object to an Observer story characterizing as "improper" her most recent campaign finance report.
In a December 2 story ("Un-chartered Territory") the Observer reported that Beth Ann Blackwood, a District 14 city council candidate, "improperly" omitted the source of $28,000 spent so far by her city council campaign.
The Observer checked with a city official cited by Blackwood and with the Texas State Ethics Commission and has concluded that the description of the omission as improper was not accurate. Instead, the omission should have been described as sleazy and contrary to state law.
Blackwood and her husband, Tom Thomas, both lawyers, told the Observer the $28,000 was money spent from personal funds. Both insisted the law does not require reporting campaign contributions from personal funds, if the candidate does not intend to repay herself.
Tim Sorrells, assistant general counsel to the Ethics Commission, however, says candidates must declare the source of all contributions, including those from personal funds. "There's a special schedule, Schedule G. It's called 'Political Expenditures From Personal Funds,'" Sorrells says.
He said a candidate may show on the report that she does not intend to seek reimbursement but must still declare that she was the source of the funds.
The Observer asked Blackwood what her goal had been in not showing she was the source of the money. She said: "How can anybody not know that that's not your money, when you're required to disclose all the money you get except for what you contributed, and you have to list every signature?"
Born to be on the Dallas City Council. --Jim Schutze
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