Senate Panel Debates Loitering Bill

Attorney General Denise George-Counts delivers testimony during Wednesday's meeting of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety. (Photo by Barry Leerdam, Legislature of the Virgin Islands)
Attorney General Denise George-Counts delivers testimony during Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety. (Photo by Barry Leerdam, Legislature of the Virgin Islands)

A proposed increase in fines and imprisonment for loitering in the Virgin Islands could be excessive or infringe on the constitutional rights of residents, senators were told during Wednesday’s meeting of the Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety Committee.

The committee voted to move the bill to the Rules and Judiciary Committee with recommended amendments suggested by Attorney General Denise George-Counts.

If the measure, Bill 33-0011, is approved by the full Senate, it would make loitering a misdemeanor that would be subject to arrest. The loiterer would be subject to a fine as much as $5,000 or a year’s incarceration or both.

George-Counts said a lawful arrest can only be made for criminal offenses in which probable cause exists and recommended the committee make changes to the jargon of the bill to ensure people’s constitutional rights were preserved.

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“Loitering laws are often struck down on this basis because they encroach on an individual’s freedom of association, freedom to assemble, and even freedom of thought.”

Unamended, the bill lists various factors officers could use to determine if a person is loitering, including the refusal to disclose their identity to an officer, which George-Counts said was not valid under federal law and would not stand if challenged.

“It is OK to hang around and relax in a public place, but if it is connected to an unlawful activity then it becomes unlawful,” and is considered loitering, George-Counts said.

“Because today’s proposed measure seeks to tie loitering to another underlying crime, which may include solicitation, attempt or conspiracy, it would likely survive judicial challenge. However, the statute should provide guidelines to officers should one of the inchoate crimes be suspected,” George-Counts said.

Police would need “minimum guidelines in ascertaining whether a crime has or is about to occur,” she concluded.

Sen. Kenneth Gittens said his concerns after reading the bill were in line with the attorney general’s and said, “While we are setting laws … we don’t want to violate anyone’s civil rights either. We have a part to play that, while we are conducting business of the people, we also do the right thing.”

In written testimony, Virgin Islands Bar Association President Chivonne Thomas called the harsher penalties excessive, but stopped short of opposing the bill.

“I do, however, request that the proposed legislation either shorten or eliminate the proposed term of imprisonment found in the proposed legislation to ensure that the Virgin Islands is not over-criminalizing the penalty for loitering,” Thomas wrote.

The bill defines loitering as a person who lingers in a public area and has intent to commit a criminal act. The criminal activity outlined within the bill were acts of gambling, using or possessing controlled substances, soliciting another to engage in prostitution, obstructing entries to establishments, and unlawfully purchasing, distributing or consuming alcohol.

“The wording of the loitering legislation before you is similar to the loitering laws found in several jurisdictions. The overriding difference however, is the excessive fine and penalty for loitering,” Thomas’ testimony reads.

Thomas listed the loitering laws of 25 random states and their penalties and noted, “the only jurisdictions with penalties equal to, or exceeding the penalty proposed by this legislation is the state of Georgia.” Georgia, however, has a lesser monetary fine of up to $1,000 and the equivalent amount of incarceration time to the proposed Virgin Islands loitering bill.

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4 COMMENTS

    • They don’t help us, they just harass us and take more and more of our freedoms away. But as you can see, no matter what they do, they will fail, because what they are doing is nonsense, and the Universe has had enough. Karma will not be kind to governments of any kind, and we are witnessing these truths in the present moment of now. And all those that are dependent on these fools will be in trouble too. However, the Rasta man will be just fine as it all crashes, as he will still be in deh yard with his Yabba pot cooking the fullness of the fullness thereof!

  1. No such thing as loitering. But there is a such thing as people hanging out and enjoying themselves! Businesses have pretty much taken everything from the people on these islands, so now they don’t want us hanging out and enjoying ourselves. Sounds more like taking away from the locals and giving away to statesiders and elitists. Same thing happened on St. James island (pedophile island), St. John (where locals take a ferry to cater to the elite, but can’t afford to live there), and St. Thomas, and now they want St. Croix too!

  2. The fuse has been lit and full gentrification is on its way in our islands. Politicians pushing these bills are listening to the money from those whose goals are to strip away at our freedoms and ways of life, inch by inch, until they grasp huge amounts of control and begin to push the locals out. It has been happening for decades on the mainland now they are finding new territories (ours) to conquer. It has been going on from several administrations ago by enacting laws and budgets to reduce and eradicate services. The role of the government is to provide the necessary functions and services for the people but our territory is now led by folks who want to remove them to enrich the money holders. Wake up and rise up!!

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