A lawsuit claiming Ashland’s so-called "exclusion zone" law is unconstitutional has been dismissed in Jackson County Circuit Court, but its backers say they will refile.
The June 26 dismissal was not based on the merits of the case, according to the lawyer who filed it, Bill Mansfield, but instead because the plaintiffs lacked standing — that is, they were not personally affected by the exclusion zone.
“We knew it was a risk, but we thought we’d try it,” said plaintiff and former Ashland city Councilor Carol Voisin. “It’s hard because they have to have an address and stay here for at least eight months and stay in touch with us.”
Given that most of the people who are excluded are homeless, she noted, finding plaintiffs who will stick around to see the process through is more difficult.
Ashland's Downtown Enhanced Law Enforcement Area is a roughly two-by-six-block area bounded by Lithia Way on the northeast, Third and Hargadine streets on the southeast, Hargadine Street on the southwest and Winburn Way, Calle Guanajuato and Church Street on the northwest. The exclusion area includes the Oregon Shakespeare Festival campus, the Plaza, City Hall and most of the downtown core. Most of Lithia Park, the post office on First Street and the library and fire station on Siskiyou Boulevard are outside the zone.
The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of Ashland residents Debbie Nieswander and Voisin, alleged that the ordinance prohibits the right of people to assemble in public places and to express themselves as guaranteed by the First Amendment.
“It (the ordinance) attacks the right to assemble," said Mansfield, a Medford lawyer. “The law has been that parks, streets and city halls are public places where people have the right to express themselves, congregate and exchange information. When you start expelling people from those kinds of places, you threaten the nature of our freedoms.”
Mansfield and the plaintiffs were contesting Ashland’s ordinance, adopted in 2012 and since expanded to cover more of downtown. The ordinance creates a three-strikes rule that says if you are found to have committed three offenses within the downtown area within a six-month period, you can be banned. Offenses include drinking in public or having an open container; urinating in public; unnecessary noise; not controlling a dog; having an unlicensed dog; using marijuana in public; and assault and harassment.
Anyone accumulating such a record can be deemed a persistent violator and be excluded from the area for a period of three months to one year.
Mansfield has also filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Medford couple against the city of Medford for a similar downtown exclusion zone.
Mansfield agrees Ashland has the right to ticket or arrest people who violate the law, but he says banning them violates the Constitution.
“We’re not attacking civic rights to ticket. We’re attacking expelling people from the public domain,” said Mansfield.
According to the National Housing Institute, 43 of the nation’s 50 largest cities have exclusion laws.
Ashland City Council members noted in drafting the ordinance that it is not aimed at any particular group, but is intended to be a way of enforcing rules about certain behaviors that affect others negatively.
In recent years, Ashland experienced an increase in problems downtown associated with mostly young adults who appear to be homeless or transients. City officials and business owners expressed concerns that the issue would negatively impact the city's tourism-based economy.
Mansfield says he intends to refile as soon as he finds plaintiffs willing to be part of the case. “The dismissal said nothing of the points of the case,” he noted.
Ashland City Attorney Dave Lohman declined comment, saying, “It’s still going on, so it would be inappropriate to comment.”
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.