At a City Council meeting Monday Oct. 8, the downtown exclusion zone, which allows people charged with certain crimes to be excluded from downtown Eugene prior to conviction, transformed into a different beast — one that activists and the homeless hope will turn on itself.
Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center plans to file suit against the city in November regarding the exclusion zone and a host of human rights issues related to the homeless in Eugene. Regan has won several legal cases and settlements against the city. “Unfortunately, once again, we’re going to have to rely on the court system to address and perhaps coerce the city into taking responsibility,” Regan says. In addition to the exclusion zone, the suit will address the lack of a legal place for homeless people to sleep and the illegal seizure of their property by police.
EPD spokesperson Melinda McLaughlin says that EPD has been revising property procedures over the past year. “A guiding principle in this has been respect for a person’s property, regardless of the monetary value. What is found property often represents the entirety of the owner’s personal possessions,” McLaughlin says in an email. “The policy will be ready to publish soon.”
Instead of allowing the exclusion zone, also known as the Downtown Public Safety Zone, to expire Nov. 30, the council voted 4-4 (with Mayor Kitty Piercy breaking the tie) to extend the zone for another year.
The renewed zone has some amendments. It will still be possible to ban people from the downtown core without first convicting them of a crime, but people will no longer be excluded for minor offenses like criminal trespass two or possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. Piercy vowed to vote against exclusion zone renewal in the anticipated tie-breaker unless the changes were made.
“We’ve literally been pleading with the city to show us any good faith toward any improvement,” Regan says. “The city is just hoping to drag their feet and delay until the squeaky wheels get tired and run out of steam.”
Much of the City Council discussion and public forum centered on the question of what has caused economic improvements and a more positive public perception of downtown: heightened police presence, economic investment or the exclusion zone.
Councilors George Brown, Alan Zelenka, Betty Taylor and Andrea Ortiz all held that an increased police presence made the difference, and Zelenka added that he doesn’t expect the jail bed situation to be fixed anytime soon.
Councilor Mike Clark cited the exclusion zone as necessary to make up for the lack of Lane County jail beds; Councilor Chris Pryor said that the exclusion zone can be a consequence until the city gets a better consequence. They voted for the amended zone along with Councilors George Poling and Pat Farr.
Brown cited EPD statistics that show that 42 percent of requested exclusions between January 2012 and Aug. 15, 2012, were withdrawn by EPD or thrown out by a judge. Of the exclusion orders granted, 39 percent had previously been issued an exclusion order. Brown said that shows that the exclusion isn’t an effective consequence.
Occupy activist Jean Stacey says that using the exclusion zone as an equivalent for jail beds for dangerous offenders makes the zone an even more ridiculous idea. “If they’re taking people who they would otherwise put in jail, which is what they’re saying, and excluding them, they’re taking them out of a highly policed area and putting them into relatively unpoliced areas,” she says. “That’s where I get the idea that [downtown is] a very exclusive club.”
David Fidanque, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, says that he thinks that even without litigation, the situation downtown has changed, and the amended zone will result in fewer pre-trial exclusions. “It’s an end run around the criminal justice process,” Fidanque says. “It gives the illusion that the city is doing something when other things are really making the difference downtown.”