Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 31, 2011

First Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds Ordinance Regulating Student Parties and Gatherings

The First Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the District Court’s decision upholding a local ordinance designed to address unruly behavior by college students, reported here last March.  

The Town was located close to the University of Rhode Island (URI) and had a “thriving rental market among college students.” Because “the sheer mass of exuberant young people and their predilections ha[d] proven to be a threat to the quality of life in [this] quiet enclave,” the Town adopted an ordinance allowing police to disperse gatherings that were sparking “a substantial disturbance.” The police could only do so, however, if the disturbance involved “a violation of law” (excessive noise, illegal parking, public drunkenness, or underage drinking).  Once police had abated the gathering, the ordinance authorized them to post a bright orange sticker, 10 x 14 inches, at the front entrance of the residence found to have hosted the “unruly gathering.”

This notice stated that, should future police intervention be required in response to another violation at the same address during the same posting period, various parties (e.g., the owners and residents of the premises, the sponsors of the unruly gathering, and any guests who caused a nuisance) would be held jointly and severally liable. Landlords were informed by mail of both the posting and the violation that led to it, and the police notified the URI as well.  If a building was posted between the beginning of September and the end of May, the sticker had to remain in place until May 31. If a building was posted between the beginning of June and the end of August, the sticker was to remain in place until August 31. The penalties for infractions at previously-posted dwellings included: a $300 fine for the first post-posting intervention; a $400 fine for the second; and any further intervention attracted a $500 fine.  The Town also maintained a list of residences that had resulted in postings. However, the ordinance made explicit allowance for certain defenses to prosecution for a subsequent violation.

The lead plaintiff challenging the ordinance was the URI Student Senate, which claimed to represent the interests of URI students generally. Other plaintiffs were students residing in the Town who had been disciplined by URI or had been evicted due to the postings, and the landlords of posted residences.  They alleged that the ordinance, among other things, (i) violated procedural due process (as to the “allegedly stigmatizing effects” of the sticker), (ii) was unconstitutionally vague, (iii) was overbroad (penalizing landlords and tenants merely because of their association with a place or an event), and (iv) it deprived them of the equal protection of the law.  The district court rejected their claims, and the First Circuit affirmed.

“[W]e find that the Town’s unorthodox solution to the problems caused by unruly gatherings does not, on its face, offend either state law or the United States Constitution….” On the procedural due process claim, a person alleging that he had suffered stigmatization at the hands of a government actor was required to show an adverse effect on some interest “more tangible” than reputational harm – an impact on some right or status previously enjoyed by him under substantive state or federal law. A loss of rental income did not qualify, nor did an increased possibility of eviction. On overbreadth, the constitutionally protected right of association had “never been expanded to include purely social gatherings.” The vagueness challenge failed because the ordinance contained additional terms that supplied “concrete guidance as to the behavior that it prohibits and the circumstances in which it can be enforced,” especially the  prerequisite “violation of law” component. “Second, we are privy to a straightforward articulation of the Town’s purpose in adopting the Ordinance. This clear statement helps to dispel any uncertainty.”

URI Student Senate v. Town of Narragansett, No. 10-1209, 2011 WL 17610  (1st Cir. Jan. 05, 2011).

The opinion can be accessed at: http://www.ca1.uscourts.gov/pdf.opinions/10-1209P-01A.pdf 

This abstract is based on the one appearing in the IMLA News 1/19/2011.  For more information about IMLA visit www.imla.org


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