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The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland filed suit this month against the town of Elkton, the county seat of Cecil County in northeast Maryland, after town employees raided a campsite last summer and destroyed all of the belongings of at least eight homeless residents. The campsite was located in publicly owned woods near a shopping center where some business owners had complained about the homeless. The suit, filed in Cecil County Circuit Court, was moved last week to U.S. District Court for Maryland in Baltimore. The suit seeks unspecified money damages for the eight plaintiffs and an injunction to halt the enforcement of a new anti-loitering law in Elkton. The ACLU contends that the law is unconstitutional and is being used to target the homeless and drive them out of town. Deborah Jeon, legal director of the ACLU of Maryland and co-counsel on the suit, spoke last week with Legal Times News Editor Brendan Smith about the suit and larger issues facing the homeless in Elkton and across the country.
LT: How did the ACLU get involved in this case? Jeon: We have been working on homeless issues in Cecil County for some years. There have been prior difficulties that folks have had up there. There was one case two or three years ago where basically all of the homeless population was banned by the police from entering two large shopping centers. We took on that case, and the police ended up rescinding the order, and folks were not prosecuted. When the clearing of the campsite occurred last August, [advocates for the homeless] called us the same day.
LT: What were the effects on the people whose belongings were destroyed? Jeon: It was devastating. It’s the saddest thing. These people did not have a whole lot to begin with, and what little they had was taken from them and destroyed. They lost family photos that were irreplaceable, a wedding band, a family Bible passed down through the generations.
LT: Why did town employees raid the campsite? Jeon: What’s been reported is, a couple business owners at this shopping center were bothered by homeless people going through the Dumpsters. Why that dictated this particular approach is a mystery. [Elkton officials] didn’t give any kind of notice that they were going to do this [raid]. They have said they have done this numerous times in the past but maybe not on such a large scale. I’m not sure why it didn’t come to light back then.
LT: Do Elkton and Cecil County stand out in Maryland on issues with the homeless? Jeon: Elkton definitely stands out, and Cecil County seems to have a large homeless population. I think in Maryland and other parts of the country there is a real issue with a lack of shelter space. It seems like the town’s resources would be better spent in Elkton on establishing shelter space and more services for the homeless. Their approach with the anti-loitering law is to put people in jail, which is much more expensive.
LT: What are the constitutional issues with the new anti-loitering law? Jeon: There are First Amendment issues. One provision prevents begging in public. That is clearly a protected First Amendment right, which the Supreme Court has held. There are Fourth Amendment issues [with the search and seizure at the campsite and the anti-loitering law, which requires people to provide identification to police if stopped on suspicion of loitering].
LT: Have any of the plaintiffs found housing since their campsite was destroyed? Jeon: A number of them currently have found other places. One has found full-time employment and is in a stable living situation. A couple are in shelters, and some are making do by staying with friends on a temporary basis. There still are camps in Cecil County, but they change from week to week.
LT: Was it difficult to track down the homeless residents who are plaintiffs in the suit? Jeon: It was not very difficult. There’s a concern in the town that providing more services to the homeless will bring more homeless people to the community. Most of [the plaintiffs] have lived there for a long time. They have roots there, and they aren’t leaving.
LT: Why did the ACLU team with Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll in Baltimore as pro bono co-counsel in the suit? Jeon: We generally partner with a law firm for pro bono work on every case we bring. We only have two lawyers on staff here. We put out a request on this case, and they thought it was a really compelling case.
Working Lunch appears every other week in Legal Times .

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