VOL. 132 | NO. 53 | Wednesday, March 15, 2017
Bill to Create Criminal Trespassing at Apartment Complexes Could Face Legal Challenges
By Sam Stockard
NASHVILLE – Two Memphis lawmakers are pushing legislation designed to clear apartment complexes of trespassers, in some cases to ensure that emergency personnel avoid intimidation and threats when they answer calls dealing with shootings.
The measure sponsored by Rep. Joe Towns and Sen. Lee Harris, both Memphis Democrats, would prohibit people who don’t live in apartments and housing complexes from hanging out in common areas posted with “no trespassing” signs.
A person could be charged with criminal trespass unless he or she has the property owner’s consent, must go there for work duties or has a contractual right to go onto the property, or is invited by someone with a contractual right to invite people onto the property, according to an amendment placed on the bill.
The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee approved the bill Tuesday, March 14, and the Senate version is set to be considered by its calendar committee to be sent to the Senate floor for consideration.
“It’s been generally perceived that those common spaces may be spaces that anybody thinks they can take advantage of, whether they live there or not,” Towns said. “… When the police, fire department or paramedics are called, they’re having problems getting to victims who need service. People who don’t live there are intimidating them and telling them who to work on and try to save first, versus them being able to utilize their professional judgment.”
According to Harris, gang members may be pulling weapons on paramedics and other emergency responders, ordering them to work on certain people who’ve sustained gunshot wounds and to stay away from others.
Under this measure, once the area is posted with a sign warning about trespassing, police officers will be able to go to the scene and order people away or arrest them if they suspect them of trespassing and the charge would stick, according to Harris and Towns.
“This just gives us a tool to use in some of those cases, because there are a lot of high-crime apartment complexes all over the state, and there are a whole lot in our district,” said Harris, adding that trespassing charges don’t hold up under current law.
A letter to Sen. Brian Kelsey, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, from Thomas Malone, president of the Memphis Fire Fighters Association, urges the Legislature to give law enforcement a method for dealing with large crowds that congregate at apartment complexes during emergency situations and “impede” the work of firefighters and paramedics.
“For example, when firefighters are on the scene of a potential shooting at many complexes, large crowds of onlookers gather. The large crowds are not residents or guests of residents, but appear to be random spectators from the neighborhood,” Malone’s letter states.
“These large crowds make it difficult for firefighters to deliver life-saving care, particularly if there have been multiple victims of a shooting. I can tell you that there have been instances when individuals from the crowd have threatened firefighters with weapons, impeded our work and put firefighter lives in jeopardy.”
Malone contends the criminal trespass statute must be expanded to bring these types of crowds under control.
Harris says public defenders tend to disagree with the possibility that people could be charged or stopped for trespassing and then be searched and arrested on drug or weapons charges. He noted he tried to have the bill drawn as narrowly as possible to ensure the bill passes muster.
However, it still could run into some opposition on legal ground.
Said Patrick Frogge, executive director of the Tennessee District Public Defenders Conference, “I have concerns it’ll be unfairly applied.”
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.