In 1988, California enacted the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP Act) to address participation in gang street crime activity. STEP has spurred the adoption by the vast majority of states of two primary types of measures to stem gang problems, particularly drug sales. One type, adopted in Chicago, uses the so-called ‘‘antigang loitering ordinance.’’ A second type, initiated in Los Angeles and now present in many California communities, uses ‘‘antigang pubic nuisance injunctions.’’
The Chicago 1992 city loitering ordinance essentially permitted police to arrest any group of two or more people who remained in a public place with no apparent purpose, if the police reasonably believed the group included a gang member and if loiterers failed to disperse. Enforcement of the ordinance led to thousands of dispersal orders and arrests. The U.S. Supreme Court in the 1999 case of City of Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41 (1999), addressed the constitutionality of the ordinance and held that it was unconstitutional under the ‘‘void for vagueness’’ doctrine. That is, the ordinance allowed police too much discretion as to who would be arrested and when that would take place.
Thosewho championed the decisionmaintained that the ordinance had been used in a discriminatory fashion to target and harass minority youngsters. Those who criticized the decision believed that efforts to curtail gang activity had now been inhibited. In reaction to the decision, Chicago city officials in 2000 enacted a new antigang loitering ordinance that they suggested would withstand constitutional ‘‘vagueness’’ examination due to its being more narrowly written and only keying on so-called ‘‘gang hot spot blocks,’’ while additionally limiting street officer discretion.
California cities have enacted ‘‘antigang public nuisance injunctions,’’ which are generally considered more resilient to constitutional attack. These civil injunctions usually apply only to named defendants and prevent the individuals from engaging in such acts as standing, sitting, walking, driving, gathering, or appearing anywhere in public view with any other known member of a gang. It is crime preventative in nature and the injunction generally designates a specific square mile area, or ‘‘safety zone,’’ that is off limits to the designated gang member. Violation of the injunction generally results in the imposition of minor criminal sanctions. Proponents claim the injunctions are highly successful in reducing gang crimes inLosAngeles and other California communities.
The 1997 California Supreme court case of People ex rel. Gallo v. Acuna, 929 P.2d 596 (Cal 1997), upheld such an injunction, indicating that it did not violate the San Jose defendants’ First Amendment rights to associate or Fifth Amendment guarantee of due process. Moreover, it found that the injunction was not vague or overbroad and that the conduct of the gang members qualified as a public nuisance and was the proper subject of an injunction. Those opposing the decision argue that such injunctions prohibit otherwise ‘‘innocent conduct’’ and amount to ‘‘racial profiling’’ because most of the identified gang members are African-American or Hispanic individuals.
Obviously, antigang ordinances and public nuisance injunctions will need to be written clearly if they are to be effective in reducing or disrupting gang activity, while also ensuring individual civil liberties.
RICK M. STEINMANN
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352 (1983); Void for Vagueness