High Court to Review Law Aimed at Gangs
By Joan Biskupic
As an African American woman who'd seen black men tormented by police, Jamesetta Harris was suspicious when she first heard about proposals to allow police to stop gang members from gathering on street corners. But that was before she moved to Chicago's South Side.
"There were 20, 30 people hanging out on the corner," Harris said of her neighborhood. "Gangs that sold drugs owned the block. There was shooting 24 hours a day. You didn't raise your shades or open your blinds. You crawled around in the house."
Harris bought her graystone in 1992, the same year Chicago passed an ordinance that allowed police to arrest suspected gang members who refused to move on when ordered to disperse. The city's rationale, echoed by law enforcement nationwide, was that gang members stake out their territory by loitering on street corners and exert power over the rest of the neighborhood by their sheer menacing presence.
Now, a debate over these laws that has consumed local communities, police departments and civil libertarians will come to the Supreme Court. The justices on Wednesday will hear oral arguments on the constitutionality of the Chicago law and whether it unfairly infringes on the rights of people to gather on the streets.
Other cities, including the District, have taken similarly controversial steps to fight gangs, by employing such measures as curfew laws that are designed to keep mere loitering from escalating into serious crime.
While some neighborhood residents say zero-tolerance policies help clean up communities and protect their residents from violence, others say they trample on personal liberties and, intentionally or not, target minorities.
"Who do you think police are going to look for?" said Luis Gutierrez, who in 1995 was arrested on the streets of Chicago as he talked with old friends. "Young Latino men. Young black men."
The Chicago law enabled police to disperse any groups of two or more people in a public place "with no apparent purpose" if one of them could "reasonably" be suspected of being a gang member. Anyone who didn't move on could be arrested, fined up to $500 and jailed for six months.
But last year, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutionally vague and a restriction on personal liberties. "The freedom to engage in such harmless activities [as loitering and loafing] is an aspect of the personal liberties protected by" the Constitution, the state court said. It also criticized the law for requiring only that the arresting officer have a reasonable belief that one of the persons in the group of loiterers is a gang member.
Relying on a 1972 high court ruling that declared a Jacksonville, Fla., vagrancy ordinance unconstitutionally vague, the Illinois court faulted the Chicago law for not separating innocent conduct from harmful activities.
In the late 1960s and early '70s, judges were especially suspicious of anti-loitering laws that encouraged what came to be known as "street sweeps" targeting blacks and Hispanics. Mindful of that era, many of those supporting the Chicago ordinance (including 31 states) stress that times have changed and that courts should realize that anti-loitering laws that might have once been used to target racial minorities are being used to make the inner cities, where many minorities reside, more livable.
"Minority citizens are no longer so disenfranchised," said a "friend of the court" brief from The Chicago Neighborhood Organizations, one of the local groups supporting the law. "They are using their new-found political power to secure effective law enforcement in the form of anti-loitering laws, curfews" and other community policing.
In its written filing in City of Chicago v. Morales, city lawyers also rebut the complaint that the law is too vague and that innocent bystanders would be unfairly affected. "No one who has been given an order to move on could fail to understand what is required of him, and under our ordinance, no arrest can be made unless there is first a police order and then a refusal to comply with that order," deputy corporation counsel Lawrence Rosenthal said.
The city also contends that police have many ways to detect gang membership: distinctive clothes, signs and signals, or the ways in which members communicate with each other.
Harris, who is active in her neighborhood policing efforts, said the law worked well before it was blocked by the lawsuit. "When I first moved in, I thought about putting armor all around the house," said Harris, who lives with her mother, a sister, a grown daughter, two grown nieces, one grandniece and two grandnephews. "Now, I want to put out flowers and nice lawn furniture."
About 45,000 people were arrested during the three-year period in 1992-95 when the law was enforced. But American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Harvey Grossman, protesting the city's policy on behalf of some of the people who were arrested, said most of those picked up were African Americans or Hispanics who were innocently milling about.
"The city's ordinance simply cannot be reconciled with our constitutional tradition" of allowing people to move about freely and associate with whomever they choose, he said. Grossman and others challenging the law say it is nothing more than a return to the street sweeping laws of the 1960s.
"People need to understand that young Latinos and young black males are just like everyone else," said Gutierrez, who was 23 and visiting his parents near their South Side neighborhood when he was picked up by police. "They just want to talk, get together, ask 'How's the family? How's school going?' "
Gutierrez, who runs an immigration consulting business, said he understands the desire to feel safe in a neighborhood. But he contends the cost of the Chicago policy is too high and served mostly to create "a gap between the elderly and the young."
Warren Friedman, executive director for the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety, one of the local groups opposing the policy, similarly contends that the anti-loitering law divides, rather than helps, communities.
"We want the community and police to work on a crime problem together," Friedman said. "The loitering law not only violates people's rights but it makes community residents passive. It becomes all the cops' work."
© 1998 The Washington Post Company