More on the arrested day laborers

Many Athenians are concerned about the mass arrest of Hispanic day laborers at the Home Depot parking lot on Thursday, December 1 by the Oconee County Sheriff's Department. See "31 seeking day labor arrested in Home Depot lot", Athens Banner-Herald, December 2, 2005. The article reported that the sheriff's department had been receiving many complaints about the conduct of certain day laborers for a long period of time. It was said that they have verbally harassed customers in the parking lot, and the December 1 newscast of News Source 15 showing the arrests also reported there had been complaints of some urinating in public. The icing on the cake was that a shelter adjacent to the parking lot was erected for the use of waiting day laborers, but many continued to stand elsewhere and generate complaints, despite many verbal warnings by deputies and fliers posted at Home Depot. (I did not see any fliers as I drove by the Home Depot storefront today.)

The first thing that Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry wanted me to know was that the arrest was a very open process accompanied by a reporter from the University of Georgia's News Source 15, something the Athens Banner-Herald did not report. He also emphasized that his office was not interested in the men's immigration status and that he does not have authority over immigration.

The men were not identified nor were they questioned before they were arrested, said Sheriff Berry. However, before a police officer may arrest someone under the charge of loitering or prowling, Georgia's loitering statute requires a police officer to "afford the person an opportunity to dispel any alarm or immediate concern ... by requesting the person to identify himself and explain his presence and conduct." Ga. Code Ann. § 16-11-36 (West 2005). Berry responded to this by saying that the men were charged under Oconee County's loitering ordinance which does not require this questioning before an arrest may be made, and the magistrate handling the charges will decide how to proceed. But both Oconee County's ordinance and Georgia's ordinance are worded very similarly since they are based on Model Penal Code § 250.6, and they include the requirement for asking the person to identify himself and explain his conduct. The text of the county ordinance appears at the end of this article.

However, the deputies did speak to the men before arresting them, and they brought translators to help, said Lynnsey Gardner, the News Source 15 videographer at the scene. She described the process as "peaceful" and gave an account showing that the operation was conducted professionally. She said that the parking lot was staked out for a while beginning before 7:00 a.m. in advance of the arrests. She said that some day laborers waiting at the shelter and thus not arrested actually approved of the roundup, though some with poorer English thought it was unjust.

Sheriff Berry said that of the 31 arrested, two were juveniles who were released from the jail facility without charges. Of the remaining 29, one was wanted by Athens-Clarke County on previous charges and another was additionally charged with giving a false name. He provided a copy of the incident report supplemented by 24 complaints on loitering by Hispanic day laborers documented since August 21, 2003. The dispatch report from Thursday's operation shows that deputies entered the scene at 8:11 a.m., 14 units of personnel were involved (including the sheriff), and 30 people were transported.

A lot of the complaints dispatched were described as a "neighborhood complaint" or "suspicious person," and most were reported from 1720 Epps Bridge Road. Some of the remarks recorded are "30-40 men in front of the cafe on the corner," "Hispanic males loit[er]ing in the parking lot," "H/M standing outside their business," "Mexican man ... soliciting bank and pedestrians to sell CD's and credit card," "day laborers out in parking lot outside of the area set aside for them," and "white 4dr truck that conducting business and the daylaborers are in the rd."


Oconee County's loitering ordinance:

Loitering or Prowling.

(a) A person commits the offense of loitering or prowling when that person is in a place, at a time or in a manner not usual for law-abiding individuals, under circumstances that warrant a justifiable and reasonable alarm or immediate concern for the safety of persons or property in the vicinity or under circumstances which cause a justifiable and reasonable alarm or immediate concern that such person is involved in unlawful activity.

(b) The circumstances which may be considered in determining whether alarm or concern is warranted include, but are not limited to, the following: taking flight upon the appearance of a law enforcement officer; refusing to identify oneself; or manifestly endeavoring to conceal oneself or any object. Unless flight by the person or other circumstances makes it impractical, a law enforcement officer shall, prior to arrest for an offense under this section, afford the person an opportunity to dispel any alarm or immediate concern which would otherwise be warranted by allowing the person to produce satisfactory identification and an explanation of that person's presence and conduct.

Oconee County, Ga., Criminal Ordinance § 10 (undated copy).

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