A score of defendants in Prince William General District Court on Monday had more than the usual entourage of family, defense attorneys and Spanish interpreters.
Closely following the cases of some 22 Latino laborers charged with loitering at a Woodbridge 7-Eleven store were attorneys who work with the American Civil Liberties Union and a Virginia Justice Center for Farm and Immigrant Workers, a representative of Woodbridge Workers’ Committee, and a small flock of reporters, including some from Spanish-speaking news outlets.
After court, the Workers Committee of Woodbridge held a press conference at Ricos Tacos Moya on U.S. 1, conducted almost entirely in Spanish.
The defendants are day laborers, who wait at two 7-Eleven stores and Covenant Presbyterian Church in Woodbridge hoping to get work from contractors. Their presence at the 7-Eleven stores has resulted in regular calls to Prince William County police, Capt. Tim Rudy said in a telephone interview Monday. The arrest of the group of laborers for loitering has spawned citizens’ meetings, a workers’ protest and discussion amongst county government officials. Awareness of the situation was one of the outcomes Rudy said he hoped for when officers arrested the laborers.
The laborers have permission from the church to wait for work on church property, which is across the street from the Longview Drive 7-Eleven store, church member Robert C. Gaskill said. Gaskill, who came to support the workers at the courthouse, said he sympathized with those trying to find work. Some of the laborers have helped the church with landscaping and cleanup on workdays, Gaskill said. Church officials could not be reached Monday.
Workers Committee of Woodbridge leader Ricardo Juarez said managers at the 7-Eleven had also granted permission for workers to wait in the 7-Eleven parking lot until 9:30 am. But the 7-Eleven store and its parking lot are surrounded by “no trespassing, no loitering” signs in Spanish and English that warn violators will be prosecuted. 7-Eleven spokesperson Margaret Chabris said the signs were put up last winter.
“We would do that on a case by case basis,” Chabris said of the signs. “It was a response to the loitering.”
Juarez and Virginia Justice Center for Farm and Immigrant Workers lawyer Tim Freilich said they felt the workers were being targeted. They expressed particular concern that some of the defendants had been turned over to federal Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly known as Immigration and Naturalization Services.
Rudy said that of the 22 defendants from the 7-Eleven at U.S. 1 and Longview Drive, 11 had identification and addresses and were released with summons. The other 11 were taken into custody because officers didn’t have addresses for them. A magistrate gave the remaining defendants $500 bonds, but they were taken to jail because they couldn’t post bond, Rudy said. The 11 names were run through a police identification system, and three names were flagged with “unique correspondence with INS,” Rudy said. The notation was unclear, so police contacted INS with the three names.
“I think we would be remiss with INS [if we didn’t contact them],” Rudy said. “In doing so, INS asked for all 11 names. ? INS sent detainers for all 11.”
Some of the laborers didn’t appear in court Monday, and were tried in their absence. Alexandria defense attorney John K. Zwerling said most of the defendants who didn’t appear had been detained by INS, and this could pose problems with those convictions.
“Ticketing day laborers for loitering won’t fix the immigration issue or the day laborer issue,” Freilich said. Freilich did much of the interpreting between defendants and ACLU attorneys in court hallways Monday. He said his Falls Church organization primarily handles cases where day laborers are cheated out of their wages. “Arresting day laborers for loitering only undermines community policing throughout Northern Virginia,” he said.
Rudy said he realizes arrests aren’t the answer. He said he hoped to dissuade the workers from congregating at the 7-Eleven and he hoped to bring the situation to public attention.
“The police department sympathizes with their desire to get work to support their families,” Rudy said.
Officers had an unwritten rule that they wouldn’t take action until after 9 a.m. After that time, it was unlikely workers would get jobs, and it was after 9 a.m. when most of the loitering complaints came in, Rudy said. Callers complained about laborers littering, urinating in public, drinking, being disorderly and acting lewdly toward female customers.
Juarez pointed out Monday that none of the defendants was charged with anything other than loitering. Rudy said officers could have charged laborers with other offenses, but chose not to do so.
One of the defendants, Johan Pavon of Woodbridge, entered a no contest plea to loitering Monday. He agreed that if a judge heard the facts in his case, they would be sufficient to convict him of loitering. A judge will reconsider his case in six months. If Pavon complies with court orders to stay away from the 7-Eleven store at U.S. 1 and Longview Drive and be of good behavior, the charge will be dismissed.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Steven W. Grist said the outcome was a good one, allowing Pavon to keep the conviction off his record while preventing loitering at the 7-Eleven.
The majority of defendants had their cases postponed until January, when they will be represented by attorneys working with the ACLU. Executive Director Kent Willis said the ACLU formally agreed to take the laborers’ cases, and may file a civil action claiming the county loitering ordinance is unconstitutionally vague.
“We find all these ordinances to be constitutionally suspect,” Willis said in a phone interview Monday, though he said he couldn’t elaborate specifically on why the ordinance was unconstitutional. “We have to take the words as well as the way it’s applied.”
Rudy disagreed that the county ordinance is unconstitutional. He said that vagrancy laws have been found to be unconstitutional, but loitering laws are constitutional. The police department has charged people with loitering for years, Rudy said.
Willis said the Virginia chapter of the ACLU hasn’t taken a formal vote on filing a lawsuit, but added that doesn’t mean the ACLU won’t.
“The question will boil down to the facts,” Willis said. “Our understanding [is] these are individuals — obviously people have the right to go to 7-Eleven — simply gathering in a constitutionally protected way.”
The remaining defendants’ cases will be heard Jan. 13. Loitering is a class 1 misdemeanor, with a maximum punishment of a $2,500 fine and/or 12 months in jail.
Staff writer Maria Hegstad can be reached at (703) 369-6594.