Court to Rule on Loitering Law Aimed at Gangs
By Joan Biskupic
The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to hear Chicago's defense of an anti-loitering ordinance aimed at gang members, who, the city says, "blatantly engage in drug deals" but once police arrive pretend to be innocently hanging out.
Numerous states and municipal groups urged the high court to take the case in light of increasing legislation targeting gangs as well as many types of public conduct on the streets. Civil libertarians and defense lawyers, meanwhile, contend authorities are going too far, curtailing harmless behavior and violating constitutional rights.
The ordinance adopted by the Chicago City Council in 1992 allows a police officer to order any group of individuals loitering in a public place to disperse if the officer "reasonably believes" that someone who belongs to a street gang is in the group. Anyone who fails to leave can be sentenced to six months in prison, a $500 fine or up to 120 hours of community service. "Loiter" is defined as "to remain in any one place with no apparent purpose."
The Illinois Supreme Court ruled last year that the law was impermissibly vague and violated constitutional due process of law. The state court said the law failed to give people notice of exactly what conduct was prohibited and deprived "persons suspected of being in criminal street gangs . . . of the personal liberty of being able to freely walk the streets and associate with friends, regardless of whether they are actually gang members or have committed any crime."
But the city, in its appeal, said "no one who has been given a police order to move on could fail to understand what is required of him." It noted that the ordinance says no arrest can be made unless there is first a police order to move on and a refusal by the subject to abide by the officer's order.
Brian L. Crowe, lawyer for the city, told the court that the ordinance was carefully crafted after public hearings and a determination that "the intimidating presence of gangs . . . has a palpable detrimental effect on a family's sense of well-being, on the willingness of parents to allow their children outside and on the willingness of Chicago residents to remain in the city."
Defense lawyers urged the high court not to take the case or to revive the ordinance.
"The city's rigid enforcement policy," said Harvey Grossman of the American Civil Liberties Union, makes it nearly impossible for potential arrestees to explain why they are waiting at some corner. Grossman referred to "persons who wish to inform an officer that they are waiting for a taxi, which may take some time on the south side of Chicago, or for a friend or family member to arrive."
Thirteen states, including Virginia, had urged the high court to take Chicago's appeal, saying that the Illinois court's decision "overprotects criminal gangs but also underprotects other members of urban communities." In a similar vein, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities and other municipal groups said Chicago's ordinance was a proper response to the serious problem of gang intimidation.
The case of Chicago v. Morales will be heard in the term that begins next October, and a ruling is likely to be handed down sometime in 1999.
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