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East Lansing ordinance for curbing "celebratory" fires declared unconstitutional

May 17, 2016

It's back to the drawing board for the city of East Lansing. 

District court judge Andrea Larkin has ruled that a 1999 ordinance aimed at cracking down on fires after big games at Michigan State University is unconstitutional.

The ordinance made it illegal to be or stay within 300 feet of a fire unless you are helping to put it out before emergency help arrives. 

Judge Larkin's ruling came in a case where two  women were charged with violating the ordinance last fall when police said they stayed within 300 feet of a mattress fire. Larkin dismissed the charges against the two women.

Larkin said the law is unconstitutionally vague and penalizes innocent conduct.

"Given the narrow historic neighborhoods in the city of East Lansing, the actual effect of the ordinance would criminalize the conduct of a large number of citizens traveling to their own homes or  their family's or friends' homes as they passed within 300 feet of the fire," Larkin wrote.

"Under this ordinance, no one could visit the home of another for any reason, including a medical emergency,  family celebration  or study group if that property was within 300 feet of a fire set by someone else. Thus, the ordinance unlawfully restricts the free movement and passage of people within the community."

Larkin noted the ordinance didn't spell out how long someone would have to be near a fire before they broke the law, and that it didn't require police to warn someone to leave the area before arresting them.

Nick Bostic, the attorney for the two defendants, said he thinks one of East Lansing's goals is to generate revenue. 

"They've had a history of taking questionable arrests and then giving people an opportunity to plead down to a civil infraction or a lower level offense and just pay a fine and put an end to the charges," Bostic said. "And the Justice Department recently came out with some guidelines and criticisms of municipalities using law enforcement and their court systems to generate revenue." 

 Lt. Scott Wrigglesworth of the East Lansing Police Department joined us on Stateside to talk about the ordinance and what could come next for those burning furniture in celebration. Wrigglesworth said the goal of the ordinance has been to increase public safety by reducing crowds around the fires.