Guilty Look

Guilty Look
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.