Minneapolis strikes spitting, lurking laws

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Updated: 12:50 p.m. | Posted: 12:10 p.m.

The Minneapolis City Council voted 12-1 Friday morning to repeal laws against spitting and lurking.

"These two ordinances are antiquated, unnecessary, and unfairly affect people of color in our community," Mayor Betsy Hodges said in a statement. "It's about time we got them off the books. I thank the Council for moving forward and taking this important next step to make changes that help enable more equitable outcomes."

Council President Barb Johnson cast the lone no vote. Johnson said the lurking law allowed police officers to stop and arrest people before they commit crimes in neighborhoods like the ones she represents on the north side.

"My citizens — when they're contacting me — are concerned about people in their alleys," Johnson said. "People are sometimes carjacked out of alleys."

Council Member Blong Yang, who is also a lawyer, said the city's law against lurking with the intent to commit a crime is likely unconstitutional.

"It seems to be criminalizing certain kinds of thought in Minneapolis, not actual crimes," said Yang. "How can a police officer see inside a person's mind and know whether such intent exists?"

Supporters of the repeals say the laws were often used by police to unfairly target people of color, which then contributes to racial disparities in arrests. Last week, an ACLU report found that people arrested for low-level crimes in Minneapolis are nearly nine times more likely to be black or Native American than white.

"Today, the Minneapolis City Council has moved towards increased racial equity in Minneapolis with the repeals of spitting and lurking ordinances," said activist Miski Noor of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis in an emailed statement. "However, this is just one step in the right direction; we need comprehensive criminal justice reform, instead of a system that just instead criminalizes Black and brown bodies."

Johnson appeared to be the outlier in the packed council chambers. Dozens of repeal supporters, some of them activists with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and Black Lives Matter, filled the seats. Some in the audience jeered when Johnson criticized the rhetoric used by civil rights advocates pushing for reforms in the Minneapolis Police Department.

"I think it is really unhelpful to talk about Minneapolis being potentially the next Ferguson," said Johnson. "It's irresponsible. It's inflammatory."

On Thursday, St. Thomas law professor and Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds stood with several other activists on the steps of City Hall, and warned that the unrest in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., will come to Minneapolis if the city doesn't immediately address the underlying causes of racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Johnson, however, is not alone in her opposition to repealing both laws.

The Minneapolis Downtown Council issued a written statement following the vote that reads, in part: "Contrary to the assertions of proponents, eliminating laws defining an expected level of conduct that help insure public safety throughout Minneapolis will not solve the deeply rooted challenges of bias in our criminal justice system. Instead, we may find that the ripple effects from such changes simply undermine the security of individuals who live, work and visit here."

The city of St. Paul prohibits loitering or lurking with the intent to commit specific crimes like prostitution or selling drugs. St. Paul also has a law against spitting.

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