Inquirer Editorial: Chalk up these charges to overzealous policing

Posted: August 19, 2012

The unsubstantiated "gateway drug" theory has been used to justify draconian measures against marijuana use on the grounds that it leads inexorably to hard-core drug addiction. Now authorities in Doylestown have brought us a new but related concept: the gateway doodle.

Doylestown police recently cited two local teenagers for chalk drawings on a borough street, apparently on the hypothesis that such activities begin a slippery slope toward spray-painting railcars with gang signs.

Police Chief James Donnelly told the Doylestown Intelligencer that even though the drawings in question innocently depicted a whale and sea turtles, they could be related to more obscene chalk drawings perpetrated about town. (He later said they weren't.) Moreover, he added, such conduct could lead to vandalism with more indelible materials. And so we got a rare case in which a chalk outline didn't just delineate the crime; it was the crime.

To their credit - after far-flung media attention and the appearance of "Chalk Watch" flyers lampooning the crackdown on "suspicious chalk-drawing" - the police came to their senses. Last week, Donnelly said they had dropped criminal mischief charges against the two boys, ages 17 and 18, because the statute applies only to more durable media.

Indeed, the case did present serious evidentiary challenges: A few days after the citations, the Intelligencer noted that the drawings had already been "washed away by rain."

While the Doylestown authorities eventually corrected their mistake, the incident suggests that they suffer either from overstaffing or inefficiency - as well as some unwarranted hostility toward harmless young people. Those impressions may linger longer than the chalk.

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