Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41 (1999)

The City of Chicago passed an ordinance that was aimed at reducing gang presence in Chicago neighborhoods. The ordinance provided that when a police officer saw ‘‘a criminal street gang member loitering . . . with one or more persons,’’ the officer ‘‘shall order all such persons to disperse.’’ Loitering was defined as remaining in ‘‘any one place with no apparent purpose.’’ Anyone failing to obey the dispersal order was subject to arrest.

In City of Chicago v. Morales, the Supreme Court found the ordinance facially invalid. The Court reaffirmed its earlier holding of Kolender v. Lawson: a penal law is void for vagueness if ordinary people cannot understand what conduct is prohibited, or if it fails to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement by the police. In Morales, the definition of loitering was the principal source of the constitutional problem because it failed to establish minimal guidelines to govern law enforcement. Whether a purpose is ‘‘apparent’’ is an inherently subjective inquiry. Furthermore, too much innocent conduct fell within the ordinance because it did not require a harmful purpose and both gang members and non-gang members could be ordered to disperse.

The ordinance was based on the ‘‘broken windows’’ theory of policing, which posits that officers prevent more serious crime when they eliminate small, visible signs of public disorder. While Morales was sympathetic to this approach, the Court was unwilling to uphold an ordinance that effectively allowed police to determine what constituted ‘‘disorder’’ within a particular community.

SARAH E. WALDECK

References and Further Reading

  • Alschuler, Albert W., and Stephen J Schulhofer, Antiquated Procedures or Bedrock Rights? A Response to Professors Meares and Kahan, University of Chicago Legal Forum (1998): 215–244. 
  • Meares, Tracey L., and Dan M. Kahan, Wages of Antiquated Procedural Thinking: A Critique of Chicago v. Morales, University of Chicago Legal Forum (1998): 197–214. 
  • Rosenthal, Lawrence, Policing and Equal Protection, Yale Law and Policy Review 21 (2003): 53–103. 
  • Strosnider, Kim, Anti-Gang Ordinances After City of Chicago v. Morales: The Intersection of Race, Vagueness Doctrine, and Equal Protection in the Criminal Law, American Criminal Law Review 39 (2002): 101–146. 
  • Waldeck, Sarah E., Cops, Community Policing and the Social Norms Approach to Crime Control: Should One Make Us More Comfortable With the Others? Georgia Law Review 34 (2000): 1253–1310. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352 (1983) 

See also Equal Protection of Law (XIV); Gang Ordinances; Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352 (1983); Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville 405 U.S. 156 (1972); Vagueness and Overbreadth in Criminal Statutes; Vagueness Doctrine

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