Gang-Loitering Law Struck Down by Court

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The U.S. Supreme Court last week struck down a Chicago city ordinance that prohibited loitering by suspected street-gang members and allowed police to arrest those who refused an order to disperse.

In a case with potential implications for school districts as well as city governments, the court ruled 6-3 that the 1992 law was unconstitutionally vague because it did not give individuals adequate notice of what was forbidden and covered a "substantial amount of innocent conduct."

The law was passed after the Chicago City Council heard extensive testimony from residents who said they feared leaving their homes because of the proliferation of street gangs.

Under the law, police could order any group of people standing around "with no apparent purpose" to move along if the officer believed at least one of them belonged to a gang. Those who disregarded the order could be arrested.

Several of those arrested during the three years the law was enforced challenged its constitutionality, and the Illinois Supreme Court in 1997 struck it down as unconstitutionally vague.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state high court's decision last week.

In the majority opinion in City of Chicago v. Morales (Case No. 97-1121), Justice John Paul Stevens, a Chicago native, said the law was too broad.

"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," Justice Stevens wrote. "In either event, if their purpose is not apparent to a nearby police officer, she may--indeed, she 'shall'--order them to disperse" under the law.

He was joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer.

Terrified Students

In a dissent joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia, Justice Clarence Thomas cited a 1998 Chicago Tribune article describing an effort by the Chicago school district to provide "parent attendance officers" to escort children from public housing past gang members to school.

"The youngsters had become too terrified of gang violence to leave their homes alone," Justice Thomas said.

Some school districts enforce anti-loitering rules as well. The city of Chicago pointed to a 1994 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, which had upheld an anti-loitering rule of the Maine Township, Ill., high school district against a vagueness challenge.

"Given the peculiar issues facing school administrators, a school's disciplinary rules need not be drafted as narrowly or with the same precision as criminal statutes," the Chicago-based appeals court said.

Vol. 18, Issue 40, Page 17

Published in Print: June 16, 1999, as Gang-Loitering Law Struck Down by Court
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