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Supreme Court will hear anti-loitering case

By Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court Friday agreed to hear a free-speech case involving access to city property that could decide the fairness of municipal anti-loitering laws.

The case stems from the arrest of a man in a public housing complex by authorities concerned about protecting residents from crime.

Kevin Hicks claims he was delivering disposable diapers to the mother of his child when he was arrested in January 1999 on a sidewalk at Whitcomb Court, a low-income housing project owned by the city of Richmond, Virginia. The buildings, sidewalks and streets around the complex had been put under city Housing Authority control and were posted with signs warning that "unauthorized persons will be subject to arrest and prosecution."

Hicks was jailed for about a year for trespassing.

City officials said Hicks had been arrested twice previously at Whitcomb Court for trespassing, and had signed a Housing Authority letter advising him he would be arrested if found again on any city housing property.

Hicks' lawyers claim no reason was given for keeping him out.

Richmond imposed the strict anti-loitering and anti-trespassing policy in 1997 to keep gangs and other criminals out of public housing projects. The city claimed the Whitcomb Court complex was an "open-air drug market" and the majority of people arrested for drug crimes there were not residents.

Restricting access, supporters of the law said, helped reduce crime in housing complexes.

The Virginia Supreme Court last June dismissed Hicks' conviction and threw out the state's anti-loitering law. The justices rejected the state's claim that Hicks had no constitutional right to challenge either his arrest or the anti-loitering laws.

"The Housing Authority's trespass policy is invalid because it is overly broad and it infringes upon First Amendment protections," the court said in a ruling that criticized the city for an ambiguous series of written and unwritten policies over the anti-trespassing policy, and for its random enforcement.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1999 ruled an anti-loitering law in Chicago was unconstitutional. It was aimed at gang members gathering in public areas "with no apparent purpose."

The court has not set a date for arguments in the Hicks case. They are likely to be presented in early spring, with a decision coming a few weeks later.

The case is Virginia v. Hicks, No. 02-0371.

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