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Breaking News / Crime / News / Top Stories / Virgin Islands / July 30, 2019

Gov. Albert Bryan, angered deeply by the burst of gunfire that injured six people at the popular Floatopia celebration near Fort Frederik beach Sunday night, is calling on lawmakers and the public to support a crack down on people illegally loitering in public spaces.

“From my part, I would kick down every door and have the police arrest these people because we know who they are in the community,” the governor said, speaking generally, about youths who are widely believed to pack firearms.

But given the constitutional problems kicking down doors would create, Gov. Bryan urged broader public backing for anti-loitering laws and proposals that help give police the upper hand over well-armed criminals.

Under legislation sponsored by Senator Novelle E. Francis Jr., who is a former V.I. police commissioner, penalties for misdemeanor loitering would include fines of up to $5,000 and a much harsher one-year jail term. Current law sets penalties at a fine and up to 90 days imprisonment.

Among other things, Title 14 of the Virgin Islands Code already permits police questioning anyone who “ … loiters, remains or wanders in or about a place without apparent reason and under circumstances which reasonably justify suspicion that he may be engaged or about to engage in crime…” 

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety OK’d Mr. Francis’ Bill No. 33-011 earlier this month. During testimony on the bill, Attorney General Denise George cautioned committee lawmakers that anti-loitering legislation must be carefully crafted to avoid constitutional challenge and other potential problems. 

“In short … in order to pass constitutional muster under the void-for-vagueness doctrine, (the bill) should incorporate both an intent element, as well as minimum guidelines to inform police, juries, and judges of the conduct that may be considered in order to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement,” Ms. George told lawmakers. 

It is unclear whether stronger anti-loitering laws or enforcement of laws already on the books would have prevented Sunday’s shootout. But enacting the loitering measure is a step toward cleaning up the streets – and not a policing tactic intended to trample on constitutional rights, Mr. Bryan said. 

“The loitering law is not to harass people. The loitering law is to take criminals off the street. To stop the ascendency of gangs and warring factions in places where good children go to have a good time,” the governor said at a press conference Monday, where a $15,000 reward for information leading to the arrests in the Fort Frederik shooting was announced.

Chivonne Thomas, VI Bar Association president, said in written testimony to the Committee on Homeland Security that she recommended that the prison term included in the measure for violators either be shortened or eliminated altogether, “to ensure that the Virgin Islands is not over-criminalizing the penalty for loitering.”

“The wording of the loitering legislation before you is similar to the loitering laws found in several jurisdictions. The overriding difference, however is the excessive fine and penalty for loitering,” she added.

Mr. Bryan isn’t swayed by concerns of police overreach. “Yes, everybody is afraid that their son will go to jail … (well) take the guns out their pockets. … If you are not loitering on the corner, you can’t get shot on the corner. … We have a responsibility to support this loitering legislation,” he said.  “It is a tool we need.” 

Robert Moore

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Officially No Damage From Sunday Earthquake

ST. THOMAS -- Sunday's 4.4 magnitude earthquake rattled St. Thomas residents but caused no significant damage and no injuries...

July 30, 2019