ACLU Hails Supreme Court Decision Striking Down City's "Anti-Gang Loitering" Law

June 10, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, June 10, 1999

CHICAGO — The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and the Cook County Public Defender’s office praised today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in City of Chicago v. Jesus Morales, et. al., striking down as unconstitutional Chicago’s “anti-gang loitering” ordinance, as a meaningful victory for young men of color in Chicago and across the nation.

“We are grateful that the Justices of the Supreme Court understand what escaped the political leaders of Chicago: namely, that it is not a criminal activity simply to be a young man of color gathered with friends on the streets of Chicago,” said Harvey Grossman, Legal Director of the ACLU of Illinois.

The Public Defender’s office and the ACLU fought hard to prove that the city’s anti-gang loitering law gave the police powers to arbitrarily select people for arrest and punishment, arguing that such laws are likely to be enforced in a discriminatory manner and tend to trap people engaged in wholly innocent conduct.

“The Chicago ordinance is, sadly, exemplary of what happens when politicians seek to appear tough on crime, ignoring the basic rights of individual citizens,” Grossman said. “This political maneuver, however, had tragic personal consequences for many young men.”

Between 1992 and 1995, Chicago police made 45,000 arrests of mostly African-Americans and Latino males under the ordinance. Many were not gang members. Some were arrested for nothing more threatening than standing in front of their own home.

Rita Fry, Cook County Public Defender, said: “These arrests left thousands of innocents with a police record, a record that can make it more difficult to seek employment, to obtain credit or to access certain benefits.

“Worst of all,” she added, “the enforcement policy endorsed by the ordinance enhanced the sense of hostility and mistrust between police and young men of color.”

Speaking for the Supreme Court majority in finding the ordinance unconstitutional and unenforceable, Justice John Paul Stevens criticized the broad sweep and vagueness of the ordinance and its failure to provide the constitutionally required minimal guidelines to govern law enforcement.

“The mandatory language in the enactment directs the police to issue and order without first making any inquiry about their possible purposes,” Stevens wrote. “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; in either event, if their purpose is not apparent to a nearby police officer, she may — indeed, she ‘shall’ — order them to disperse.”

The “anti-gang loitering” ordinance was enacted in 1992 and immediately challenged by the ACLU and the Cook County Public Defender’s Office in the Circuit Court of Cook County. In 1995, the Illinois Appellate Court found the law unconstitutional and enjoined its application. In 1997, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the appellate court and unanimously ruled that the law was unconstitutional.

The decision is a major setback for the City of Chicago, which fought hard to uphold the ordinance. The City organized community meetings and petitions in support of the law, and recruited the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Governors and state Attorneys General to join in their arguments before the High Court.

The ACLU position was supported by civil rights, community and law enforcement organizations, as well as prominent individuals, including the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Black Leadership Forum, the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, the National Black Police Association, and United States Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. All these groups and persons filed “friend of the court” briefs before the Supreme Court.

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