Democratic convention security rules trigger free speech worries
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Starting this weekend, someone walking through Charlotte's central business district could run afoul of the law by carrying water bottles, hair spray, socks or magic markers under sweeping security rules enacted ahead of the Democratic National Convention.
It would take a particularly strict reading of the rules for someone to be arrested simply for possessing one of those items, but the possibility exists -- which worries protesters and free speech advocates. They fear authorities could trample on people's constitutional rights in the name of protecting public safety.
The changes to city ordinances adopted earlier this year for "extraordinary events" ban a long list of actions and items that would otherwise be legal from a more than 100-square-block zone. The area includes spots as much as a mile from the sports venues where the Democratic Party events are to be held.
The new rules have already been used for events before the convention and will remain on the books after it's over.
The special rules that went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday could also bar anyone other than government employees from carrying handbags and backpacks or possessing soda cans, drink coolers, scarves, bike helmets, baby strollers or pets not specifically permitted as service animals.
A section banning "a container or object of sufficient weight to be used as a projectile" could be interpreted to include almost anything, from an apple to an iPhone.
Those caught violating any of these prohibitions could be subject to arrest and jail.
Similar prohibitions have been in place at past conventions, especially those following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Outside the Republican National Convention in 2004, New York City police carried out mass arrests, detaining hundreds of people for days in miserable conditions on a Hudson River pier. Most of those charges were later dropped or thrown out, triggering dozens of lawsuits against the city.
At the rain-soaked Republican Convention in Tampa last week, officials banned umbrellas, baseballs and puppet-making materials. There, the rules went largely untested after only a fraction of the expected protesters showed up due to worries about Hurricane Isaac.
Charlotte's uptown business district is home to the headquarters of Bank of America and substantial operations for Wells Fargo, two of the nation's largest financial institutions. The "March on Wall Street South" scheduled for today is expected to draw thousands of protesters.
Members of Occupy Charlotte, who are helping to organize the march, said turnout for that and other protests could get a boost from demonstrators deterred from Tampa by the weather. At the other end of the political spectrum, tea party activists and other right wing groups are also planning protests.
City and police officials stressed that it's their responsibility to maintain law and order. There has been street violence at some recent high-profile events, such as the 2008 GOP convention in Minneapolis and the NATO Summit in Chicago this year.
"History has shown, unfortunately, that while the vast majority are law-abiding and peaceful, expressing their First Amendment rights, a number of folks use the opportunity of large crowds and a platform to cause harm and violence," said Charlotte City Attorney Robert Hagemann, who helped draft the extraordinary event ordinance.
Chris Brook, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said that some of Charlotte's new measures could violate constitutional protections, depending on how they are enforced. Brook said he's especially concerned by language that bars bags "carried with the intent to conceal weapons or other prohibited items."
One way for an officer to determine whether an opaque bag held by a person contains a prohibited item would be to search it.
But if the person declines to submit to a warrantless search, which is a citizen's protected right, the officer is left to either let the person go or decide that the person is intending to conceal any of the dozens of prohibited items. That could trigger an arrest, during which a search could occur.
"I think it's exceptionally difficult to divine whether someone is carrying a backpack for their books or carrying a backpack with the intent to conceal weapons," Brook said. "I think that could easily lead to standardless searches. I think it could easily lead to situations where there is some profiling going on, for example a person wearing a business suit might be far less likely to be searched than some other individuals who might be downtown."
Hagemann said officers will use their training, experience and common sense to enforce the ordinances fairly. He said there could be reasonable suspicion to search someone's bag based on body language or demeanor, or if the bag appears to be especially heavy or have sharp, protruding edges. Possession of knives, chains sticks and pipes are banned the ordinance.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, handguns and rifles are not included in the long list of potential weapons banned by the city. North Carolina state law specifically grants the right to carry firearms in public places, either in plain view or, if the person has a special permit, concealed.
However, Hagemann said that state law doesn't allow guns for those participating in parades or marches, or for spectators of those events.
Since the new ordinances were approved in January, officials have already applied the "extraordinary" designation to other events where protesters were expected, including recent shareholder meetings for Bank of America and Duke Energy. Hagemann said the rules may be revisited after the DNC.
Protest leaders fear some the more than 1,750 Charlotte police officers might abuse their enhanced powers during the convention. Another concern is whether the 3,400 officers on loan from other departments have received adequate training on the Charlotte ordinances.
Mark Newbold, the attorney for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, said out-of-town officers received about 2.5 hours of special training for the convention, including 20 minutes on the city's extraordinary event ordinances.
Michael Zytkow, an activist with Occupy Charlotte, was arrested after he spoke beyond his allotted 3 minutes during the meeting where the ordinances were approved. The misdemeanor charge against him was later dropped.
He said he tried to test the new rules at one of the shareholder meetings by wheeling a large cooler filled with water bottles down the sidewalk. He said the police left him alone.
"I think this is an attempt to vilify protesters," he said of the ordinances. "I think it's an attempt to prevent us from coming out and joining and expressing our rights to march on the street and express our grievances."
Follow AP Writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck