State High Court Allows Injunctions
January 31, 1997, Friday, Valley Edition
SECTION: Part A; Page 1; Zones Desk
LENGTH: 2054 words
HEADLINE: STATE HIGH COURT ALLOWS INJUNCTIONS TO RESTRICT GANGS; SAFETY: RULING STRESSES PUBLIC CONCERNS AND LETS COMMUNITIES BAN LEGAL ACTIVITIES OF ALLEGED MEMBERS, SUCH AS ON BLYTHE STREET IN PACOIMA.
BYLINE: MAURA DOLAN and ALAN ABRAHAMSON, TIMES STAFF WRITERS
DATELINE: SAN FRANCISCO
The California Supreme Court, putting public safety concerns over civil liberties, ruled Thursday that cities can prohibit suspected gang members from engaging in legal activities such as associating on street corners or annoying residents.
In a decision that divided the justices and sparked flaming rhetoric, the high court said cities may continue to use public nuisance laws to obtain injunctions that prevent suspected gang members from engaging in otherwise legal activities.
One of the places an injunction has been used to curb gangs is in the Blythe Street area of Pacoima.
The 4-3 ruling, overturning a Court of Appeal decision, upheld a San Jose injunction that barred 38 suspected Latino gang members from “standing, sitting, walking, driving, gathering or appearing anywhere in public view” with each other in a four-block neighborhood.
“Liberty unrestrained is an invitation to anarchy,” Justice Janice Rogers Brown wrote for the court. “Freedom and responsibility are joined at the hip.”
The decision removes a legal cloud over such gang-abatement injunctions, which have been growing in popularity in California as a tool to combat gangs. Nearly a dozen California communities have won such injunctions, and more cities are expected to seek them as a result of Thursday’s ruling.
Gov. Pete Wilson, in a statement from China where he is on a trade mission, praised the court for upholding “an important tool in our efforts to put an end to gangs that terrorize the law-abiding residents of our cities.”
“Today’s ruling sends a clear message to gang members,” Wilson said. “The safety of our communities takes priority over gang members’ freedom to hang out on street corners and prey on the innocent.”
Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who made the anti-gang strategy a focus of his reelection campaign last year, said Thursday he may now seek even broader injunctions to restrict gangs.
Local officials who have strongly supported the Blythe Street injunction expressed relief with the ruling. “If someone were to challenge the local injunction in court, Blythe Street will be upheld,” said Assistant City Atty. Marty Veranicar.
“This case has given us the framework for what we need to seek strongly against other gangs.”
But civil libertarians were troubled by the ruling. They argue that these injunctions go too far, violating such basic constitutional rights as freedom of association. Similar concerns also fractured the state high court, producing four separate opinions.
“No doubt Montesquieu, Locke and Madison will turn over in their graves,” wrote Justice Stanley Mosk in a dissent, noting the majority opinion invoked the names of these noted advocates of liberty.
Mosk chastised the court for depriving “simple rights to a group of Latino youths who have not been convicted of a crime.”
In the case before the court, residents of a San Jose neighborhood said they had been terrorized by a Latino gang. Its members congregated on lawns and sidewalks, drinking, smoking marijuana and snorting cocaine “laid out in neat lines on the hoods of residents’ cars,” Brown wrote for the court majority.
Residents complained they had become prisoners in their homes, friends refused to visit and children could not play outside. Gang members took over sidewalks and driveways, urinated in public and covered everything with graffiti, the residents said.
After nearly 500 arrests failed to resolve the problem, the San Jose city attorney’s office filed a lawsuit under a public nuisance law and obtained a court injunction in 1993 prohibiting alleged gang members from associating in the neighborhood.
The injunction also prevented the 38 named individuals from carrying pens, nails or razor blades, from climbing trees or fences, and from wearing gang colors in the neighborhood.
Each alleged member was served with the injunction. Those who violated it faced fines and jail time. San Jose officials credited it with transforming the neighborhood into a peaceful place where children now play on front lawns and the tinkling sounds of ice cream trucks are again heard.
The American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the injunction on behalf of 11 of the alleged gang members, and the state Court of Appeal in San Jose struck down all portions that prohibited legal activities. The city of San Jose decided to appeal only parts of that ruling.
San Jose asked the state high court to reinstate the provisions that prevented gang members from associating and from annoying, harassing or threatening any resident who had complained about the gang.
The state high court held that these sections were not overly broad or vague and did not infringe on gang members’ constitutional rights. Individual rights cannot be protected at the expense of a community’s right to security and protection, the court said.
“The interests of the community are not invariably less important than the freedom of individuals,” Brown wrote. “Indeed, the security and protection of the community is the bedrock on which the superstructure of individual liberty rests.”
Individuals have no right to act “as they think fit” if they enter society, Brown wrote, and everyone has the right to society’s protection.
“The freedom to leave one’s house and move about at will, and to have a measure of personal security is ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty’ enshrined in the history and basic constitutional documents of English-speaking peoples,” Brown wrote.
ACLU lawyer Amitai Schwartz, who argued against the injunction, said that Brown’s use of the phrase “English-speaking peoples” was insensitive in a case that primarily affected Latinos.
He also complained that she injected “her political philosophy” into the opinion, which was signed by Chief Justice Ronald M. George, Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Marvin R. Baxter.
“What this court really did was give short shrift to any constitutional restraints at all,” Schwartz said. “It is sort of a green light for making the courts into an adjunct of the police.”
He predicted that the ruling would prompt a proliferation of efforts to use public nuisance laws to ban all sorts of conduct, even outside the gang context.
“What struck me was the lack of restraint,” Schwartz said of the majority’s holding. He said the ACLU is considering appealing the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a separate opinion, Justice Ming W. Chin agreed that courts can prohibit behavior even if it is legal. But Chin objected that the injunction named at least two individuals who may not have been gang members.
“I do not discount the serious threat to community values that criminal street gangs pose,” Chin wrote. “Nevertheless, we cannot turn a blind eye to the necessities of proof.”
Individuals should not be named as gang members without corroborating evidence that they “substantially contributed to the nuisance or intended to do so in the future,” Chin wrote.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard, in another opinion, said the court should not have upheld the language in the injunction prohibiting members from walking together in the neighborhood.
Citing the 1st and 14th Amendments to the federal Constitution, Kennard said the state cannot criminalize the right of peaceful and law-abiding assembly “simply because its exercise may offend some people.”
Mosk, in his dissent, called the court’s ruling “a blunderbuss approach” that makes bad law and bad policy.
“The majority would permit our cities to close off entire neighborhoods to Latino youths who have done nothing more than dress in blue or black clothing or associate with others who do so,” he complained.
But Garcetti said he was “elated” by the ruling. “I am genuinely excited about this,” he said in a telephone interview from Palm Springs, where he was attending a meeting of California district attorneys. “We didn’t expect this to be as strong as it apparently is.”
Garcetti said the injunctions don’t simply move crime. Faced with a court order, gang members either move their activities inside their homes or discontinue them, he said.
Veranicar said the Pacoima injunction has resulted in “a definite improvement in the quality of life on Blythe Street.”
“Blythe Street has seen, I would say, a revival in terms of community support. We actually have a local anti-gang office there in one of the renovated apartment buildings. We’re making progress in rooting out some of the nuisance buildings that are there.”
He added gang nuisance injunctions are “the first step toward giving the community some breathing space it needs to relax the grip of gang intimidation.”
In Norwalk, where such an injunction has been in effect since 1994, the change in a 20-square-block neighborhood once overwhelmed by a local gang is dramatic, residents say.
Residents along the streets of northwest Pasadena described a similar transformation. A year-old injunction has prohibited various gang activities in a 12-square-block zone there.
“Things are beautiful,” said resident Rudy Partida, 54. “The nightcrawlers are gone and the whole neighborhood is on an up.”
Dolan reported from San Francisco, Abrahamson and Times staff writers Abigail Goldman and Ann W. O’Neill and correspondent Deborah Belgum from Los Angeles.