Gangs Can Congregate
High Court Strikes Down Chicago Anti-Gang Law
The Supreme Court struck down a Chicago law aimed at preventing street gang members and their friends from hanging out in public. The constitutional dispute brought nationwide attention. (PhotoDisc)
The Associated Press
W A S H I N G T O N, June 10 — The Supreme Court today struck down a Chicago law aimed at preventing street gang members and their friends from hanging out in public. The 6-3 decision ended a constitutional dispute that captured the attention of states and communities across the nation.
The court said the 1992 anti-loitering ordinance, which resulted in 45,000 arrests in the three years it was enforced, violated the rights of the people police arrested under it because it did not give them adequate notice what was forbidden.
The ruling limits communities’ options in battling problems caused by street gangs.
The ordinance required police to order any group of people standing around “with no apparent purpose” to move along if an officer believed at least one of them belonged to a street gang. Those who disregarded the order would be arrested.
The Illinois Supreme Court had struck down the law, calling its language too vague and ruling that it gave police officers too much discretion in deciding whether there had been a violation.
Today’s decision said the state court was right.
“Since the city cannot conceivably have meant to criminalize each instance a citizen stands in public with a gang member, the vagueness that dooms this ordinance is not the product of uncertainty about the normal meaning of ‘loitering’ but rather about what loitering is covered by the ordinance and what is not,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.
Chicago Native Disagreed with Law
Stevens, the highest court’s only Chicago native, said the law required police to tell people to move on without inquiring about their purpose in standing around.
“It matters not whether the reason that a gang member and his father, for example, might loiter near Wrigley Field is to rob an unsuspecting fan or just to get a glimpse of Sammy Sosa leaving the ballpark,” he said. “In either, if their purpose is not apparent to a nearby police officer, she [the officer] indeed, she ‘shall’ — order them to disperse.”
In finding fault with Chicago’s anti-loitering law, Stevens was joined by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, David H. Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
Three Give Separate Opinions
O’Connor, Kennedy and Breyer wrote separate opinions explaining their views.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who dissented along with Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas, took six minutes to read aloud from the bench part of his strongly worded opinion.
“The citizens of Chicago have decided that depriving themselves of the freedom to ‘hang out’ with a gang member is necessary to eliminate pervasive gang crime and intimidation — and that the elimination of the one is worth the deprivation of the other,” he said. “This court has no business second-guessing either the degree of necessity or the fairness of the trade.”
He called the invalidated ordinance “a perfectly reasonable measure.”
When the case was argued before the justices in December, city lawyer Lawrence Rosenthal called gang crime “different from every other form of criminal activity.” He told the court, “Street gangs rely on their ability to terrorize the community,” and that police officers most often arrive on the scene only to see gang members “pretending to innocently loiter.”
Civil Rights Groups Opposed Law
But a majority of the justices had voiced concerns during the argument session over what O’Connor called the “arbitrariness of the police.”
The Clinton administration, 31 states, the National League of Cities, U.S. Mayors Conference and National Governors Association sided with Chicago and urged the court to reinstate the ordinance.
The ordinance’s opponents included the NAACP and other civil rights groups, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Black Police Association.
In striking down the ordinance as too vague, today’s decision acknowledged “the serious and difficult problems” street gangs cause for Chicago.
“However, in this instance the city has enacted an ordinance that affords too much discretion to the police and too little notice to citizens who wish to use the public streets,” Stevens wrote.
A more liberal Supreme Court in 1972 struck down a Jacksonville, Fla., ordinance that prohibited “persons wandering around from place to place without any lawful purpose or object.”
Such general anti-loitering ordinances, once common, were viewed by many as thinly veiled attempts to keep blacks out of certain towns and neighborhoods. Many civil rights lawyers had predicted the Chicago dispute would gauge the current court’s continued adherence to the 27-year-old precedent.
Stevens’ opinion made only scant mention to the 1972 ruling.
While the justices had been warned in December about “the enormous evils associated with gang loitering,” no one seemed certain about just how many street gang members reside in Chicago. City police estimated that gang membership might total 10,000 but the court was told that federal prosecutors believe the total might be closer to 100,000.
The case is Chicago vs. Morales, 97-1121.
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