Marita Peters never thought owning her own home would turn her son into a criminal. But, thanks to a strictly enforced public-housing law, that's exactly what happened.
The law, on the town's books since 1994, allows police and security guards to issue a trespass notice to anyone found on public-housing property who does not live there. The trespassers' names are put in a log. If they are found on the property more than once, they can be arrested. Intended to reduce crime, the law has effectively banned visitors.
Peters's teenage son, Jason Diggs, grew up in the Sagner housing complex in Frederick, Maryland. Eventually his mother bought a house across the street. When Diggs continued to visit his friends and family at Sagner or cut through the complex on his way to a nearby basketball court, he was arrested. Now he and his mother are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed against Frederick's housing authority and the city's police department by Public Justice Center, a civil-rights group based in Baltimore.
"There are no written guidelines about the trespass policy," says Public Justice Center attorney Deborah Thompson. "It's extremely vague. No one has fair notice of how they could get arrested for this. If the cops think they don't have a right to be there, then they don't."
Kizzy Diggs, who has spent most of her twenty-one years in the John Hanson public-housing complex, says her uncle was arrested and jailed for trespassing while helping her to carry a mattress into her second-floor apartment. Diggs and her two-year-old daughter Andresia, whose father was arrested while trying to visit their apartment, are also plaintiffs in the Public Justice Center lawsuit.
"I think there's a big problem," says Diggs. "Just because I'm paying [rent] for this place doesn't mean you all have the right to stop my family members from visiting me."
Frederick officials declined to comment, but have been quoted in other publications saying the policy has significantly reduced crime in the housing projects, which have a history of drug deals and violence. "It's an issue of safety, from our point of view," says Steven Becker, an attorney representing the Frederick police. "We see the trespass policy as an effective tool in eliminating crime in public housing."
And what about residents' complaints of grandparents being kept from grandchildren? "If Grandma is coming by to sell drugs in public housing, I don't think it's a legitimate complaint," says Becker.