Rethinking gang’s rights vs. our rights
February 5, 1988, Friday, Home Edition
Metro; Part 2; Page 9; Column 3; Op-Ed Desk
Street-gang crime in all its horrific forms has become a deeply disturbing citywide problem. No neighborhood, street, sidewalk or home is safe from the mayhem perpetrated by gangs that are trying to protect the “turf” where they carry out their organized criminal operations. In many neighborhoods, street gangs clearly are out of control despite the best efforts of traditional law enforcement, and we have reached the point where tough new remedies are needed to combat the problem.
The community, from the San Fernando Valley to San Pedro and from the Eastside to the Westside, is pleading with law enforcement for help. Yet we in law enforcement are faced with an increasingly frustrating and demoralizing dilemma. Each time we attempt a creative and innovative approach, whether through new criminal legislation or existing avenues of civil injunctions and other remedies, we find ourselves confronted with the untenable accusation that we are acting utterly without regard for the legitimate constitutional rights of gang members.
To distant apologists who do not live under the constant domination and control of gangs, it is far too easy to speak out blithely in favor of “meaningful social expression” and the constitutional right of gang members to associate freely. With little regard for the practical realities facing a city under siege by violent gang activity, these purists calmly and unrealistically say that protecting the rights of gang members ultimately protects the rights of us all. Given the crisis confronting our city today, we no longer can endure a silent surrender to these misplaced notions.
Regardless of mistaken perceptions, no constitutional rights are absolute — not those of average citizens and certainly not those of murderous gang members bent on turning our neighborhoods into centers for organized drug dealing and our streets into combat zones. Freedom of speech is not absolute. Freedom of association is not absolute. It has long been established in court case after court case that the government may enact legislation or regulations that significantly interfere with personal liberties when the general welfare and public health and safety demand it.
The compelling state interest in limiting liberties is balanced against the right of an individual or a group to engage in certain activity. We have reached the point in this city at which a hard new look has to be given the rights of street-gang members whose activities seriously infringe on the rights of other citizens to enjoy a basic quality of life — and, in far too many tragic instances, life itself.
We have long accepted as valid and legal such government prohibitions as regulations against televised cigarette commercials, free-speech limitations that would not protect shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, restraining orders against striking workers, and orders prohibiting abusive spouses from entering or even telephoning their own homes. These restrictions are accepted despite the obvious intrusions into the constitutional freedoms of speech and association.
Time and time again the balance has been struck on the side of the state’s legitimate concern for protecting something more significant and vital to our society than an individual’s constitutional rights. Why, then, in the area of gang activity — which is so much more immediately dangerous than a single cigarette advertisement — are we rendered impotent? Why is it that we are unable to enjoin activity indisputably linked to drug activity in a neighborhood held captive by gang members engaged in organized and open narcotics dealing in the streets?
Why are gang members, in the name of the Constitution, allowed to continue organized drug sales by congregating in groups, roaming through neighborhoods at all hours, approaching vehicles, keeping guns and knives in their cars and residences, using beepers and walkie-talkies to facilitate drug dealing, and carrying spray paint to mark their territory to usurp the rights of legitimate property owners? While many of these activities are not specifically against the law, in gangland situations they indicate criminal activity.
It simply is not acceptable to allow gang members to hide behind the Constitution as they carry out their criminal enterprises when this so obviously results in law-abiding citizens being denied their constitutional right to enjoy the comfortable use of their homes and neighborhoods. The continued protection of gang activity under the guise of upholding our Constitution is causing a deadly blight on our city. Gang presence in some areas already has become an urban form of army occupation that renders people terrified hostages in their own homes, leaves innocent people dead, drives out legitimate commercial enterprise and forces down property values.
It is time to expose the fallacy that somehow we all benefit by protecting the rights of street-gang members to associate freely and to terrorize us. Society truly benefits when the rights of all are protected from being trampled and denied by a few. The legal game is too deadly, the stakes are too high and the price is too dear to ignore this basic truth.
We desperately need to rethink the balance between the constitutional rights of street gangs and the compelling state interest in protecting the innocent victims of gang terrorism. It is time for us to return to reason. It is time for us to use the legal weapons necessary to reclaim the streets of Los Angeles for the people.