The way Lance Handy tells it, he was just minding his own business, buying a pack of smokes from a corner store at Park and Lake in south Minneapolis, when the cop approached him.
"What are you doing here?" the officer asked.
"I just went to the store to buy cigarettes," Handy answered.
"You know, this is an area where drugs are being sold," the cop replied.
"Okay," Handy said, "But this is an area where people buy food and go shopping, too."
Evidently, Handy's explanation didn't help. After being frisked, he was placed in the squad car and driven to the precinct house, where he was charged with violating section 385.80 of the Minneapolis City Code, more commonly known as the "lurking law."
The ordinance—which runs just one sentence—makes it a crime to "lurk, lie in wait or be concealed" with the intent to commit a crime. But Guy Gambill, a criminal justice advocate, has a simpler explanation: "It's standing on a corner after ten o'clock at night when you're black."
As any first-year law student knows, proving intent can be tricky. In Handy's case, prosecutors didn't even try. After Handy made two court appearances, the charge against him was abruptly dropped.
Such outcomes are hardly unusual. A review of low-level crimes in Minneapolis by the Council on Crime and Justice found that approximately 78 percent of lurking charges wound up being dismissed.
Still, the charges carry a price. Gambill estimates that a typical lurking bust costs taxpayers about $75-$500 for the booking fee and $250 for a night in jail, plus four hours of wages for the cops who make the arrest.
And Gambill says the lurking ordinance is disproportionately applied to young black men such as Handy. "This ordinance is so damn vague you can't even get law enforcement to explain what the basis for charging is," Gambill says.
According to Minneapolis Police Department records, police have made 800 arrests or citations for lurking since 2003. Of those arrested, 58 percent were black, compared to 26 percent who were white.
But after examining a subset of the data, Gambill became even more convinced of a bias in the system. Of the 103 people charged with lurking who were homeless, all were African American. Which is why, in a recent meeting with Assistant Police Chief Sharon Lubinksi, Gambill quipped: "I'd like to talk about the racial disparity, but that requires at least two races being involved."
Lubinski bristles at the accusations of racial bias, defending the ordinance as a "useful tool." She says there's a good reason that blacks are overrepresented in the sample: They make up 80 percent of the homeless population in Minneapolis.
"This isn't just some racist cop," Lubinski says. "It is citizens calling us and saying, 'Hey, there's a guy trying all the car doors in the parking lot.'"
Indeed, the MPD's most recent analysis of lurking charges found that about one-fifth of the arrests were related to suspicion of motor vehicle burglary.
Lubinski referred questions about the high dismissal rate to prosecutors in the city attorney's office, who didn't return phone calls for comment. Still, Lubinksi says people shouldn't jump to conclusions.
"Just because charges are dropped doesn't mean they're not valid," she says. "It just means we don't have enough resources to get a conviction."
But that explanation doesn't impress Second Ward City Council member Cam Gordon, who is planning to introduce a measure next month to repeal the lurking law.
"I'm very concerned about laws that are so loose and so general that they can be applied in a discriminatory manner," he says.
City Council President Barb Johnson expects there will be considerable opposition to any effort to repeal the ordinance. While acknowledging that the low conviction rate doesn't look good, Johnson says that alone isn't reason enough to strike the lurking law from the books.
"I wouldn't want to throw out a useful tool because officers aren't always clear about why they are citing someone," Johnson says, adding that, as a council member, the most common phone complaint she gets is "about people who are hanging out on the corners."
Johnson also says she's "tired of all those old arguments" about racial disparity. "If you're the person who is waiting for the bus and is frightened by someone who is lurking, what validity does that have?" she asks. "Are we supposed to ignore all this stuff and just turn the city over to the creeps? Apparently, that's what some folks want."
Yet in Handy's view, attitudes like hers are a big part of the problem.
"Young black men like me are just perceived as thugs," he says. "And if you're in a neighborhood where there is some criminal activity, you're harassed on a daily basis—even if you're not involved."