WASHINGTON — Chicago police must find a different way to crack down on street gangs.
The US Supreme Court yesterday struck down a 1992 city ordinance that gave police the power to harass criminal gangs on their home turf by forcing them to disperse from street corners, city parks, and other public areas or face immediate arrest.
A 6-to-3 majority of justices found that the loitering ordinance was impermissibly vague in that it targeted both criminal gang members and anyone else who happened to be in the vicinity.
"Since the city cannot conceivably have meant to criminalize each instance a citizen stands in public with a gang member, the vagueness that dooms this ordinance is not the product of uncertainty about the normal meaning of 'loitering,' but rather about what loitering is covered by the ordinance and what is not," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote.
The decision means Chicago will have to confine its antigang operations to targeting clearly criminal conduct. It also means that 33 states and many cities closely following the case will have to look elsewhere for solutions to growing gang problems.
In a broader legal sense, the decision upholds the principle that a citizens' liberty should be infringed upon by police only when they are acting with probable cause of an actual crime, rather than mere suspicion that someone may be a gang member.
In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia recounted the desperate situation in which Chicago residents in some neighborhoods were held hostage to fear by lawless street gangs. "I would trade my right to loiter in the presence of gang members," he wrote, rather than surrender the right to live without fear in the city.
The Chicago ordinance empowered police to arrest anyone hanging out with a suspected street-gang member if that person refused to move on. More than 43,000 people were arrested.
Harvey Grossman, ACLU legal director, praised the decision: "The Chicago ordinance is, sadly, exemplary of what happens when politicians seek to appear tough on crime, ignoring the basic rights of individual citizens."