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Why Burien Might Toss Out City Trespass Rules

"Burien Press" by Michael Allen Smith@INeedCoffee is licensed under CC by 2.0
Burien's library and city hall share a building

When the Burien City Council passed a trespass law four years ago, critics said it targeted the city's homeless population.  

Now, a new City Council is weighing a repeal of the law, which allows police to kick people out of public spaces for "disruptive" behavior. It could come up for a vote at a meeting on Monday at 7 p.m. 

Burien's trespass regulations, first passed in 2014 and amended twice since then, give public property some of the same restrictions as private property. 

For example, police can temporarily ban someone from the city library for bathing or shaving in the restroom or "unreasonably boisterous physical behavior." 

Bans typically last a week, but repeat offenders could be barred from a space for up to a year.

If someone violates a ban, they could face a misdemeanor trespass charge that carries possible fines or jail time. 

City Council members opposed to the rules have said they've made Burien a "laughing stock" among regional advocates for people experiencing homelessness.

Police have handed out 121 trespass notices to 89 people since the law was passed, according to figures provided by the city. 

Proponents of the law have said it's a useful tool for keeping places like the library safe. Burien's City Hall shares a building with the library.

"Lots of people are hesitant to come to this facility and this area because of the fact that there has been some misbehavior," then-City Council member Steve Armstrong said at a 2014 meeting. "So I'd like to see the community be able to come back and be safe and healthy and enjoy what we have here." 

In 2015, City Council members removed controversial provisions that made having an offensive odor or not wearing shoes grounds for a ban. 

But a group of newly-elected City Council members are still pushing for a repeal. They say the rules make life even more difficult for people without homes, who spend time in the library and other public spaces. 

They're backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which has been critical of the law. 

"All versions of the trespass ordinances have had language that's simply too broad, like 'unreasonably loud vocal expression,' 'unreasonably boisterous physical behavior,'" said Doug Honig, a spokesman for the organization. "And what does that actually mean? Laws need to be more specific than that." 

The ACLU of Washington, in a Feb. 1 letter, urged City Council members to move forward with a repeal, saying the rules "contain significant constitutional flaws."

"These trespass ordinances are also unnecessary, because there are already plenty of rules and laws that can be used if a crime is being committed or an established rule of the particular location is being broken," the letter said. 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.