The controversy over how police treat suspected gang members, even those who may not have committed crimes, is at the heart of a Chicago case to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this fall.
In 1992, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance authorizing the Chicago Police Department to disperse groups congregating in public if police believe gang members are present. People who refused to move along could be arrested for gang loitering, and a conviction can result in a maximum fine of $500, six months in prison or 120 hours of community service.
Between 1993 and 1995, police arrested 43,000 people under the new law. One of them, Jesus Morales, now 22, was arrested April 4, 1993, after police said he refused to leave a street corner on the 1100 block of West Belmont Avenue, where he was standing with a group of Latino teen-agers.
At Morales’ trial, the arresting officers testified that they thought he was a gang member because he was wearing blue and black clothing, the colors of the Gangster Disciples, according to court documents. Morales denied being a gang member and said he had paused at the corner while walking home on crutches. He was convicted of gang loitering and sentenced to one day in Cook County Jail.
Morales appealed his conviction, and in 1995, his case was consolidated with 69 others. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and the Cook County Public Defender’s Office took over the appeals, arguing that the law was vague, restricted personal freedom and permitted arrest without probable cause.
On Oct. 17, 1997, the Illinois Supreme Court concluded that “such laws, arbitrarily aimed at persons based merely on the suspicion that they may commit some future crime, are arbitrary and likely to be enforced in a discriminatory manner.”
The city appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the ordinance provides communities with “a greater measure of control over those who disrupt community stability, detract from property values, and intimidate their neighbors.”
In 1995, the last year the ordinance was enforced, gang-related homicides fell 26 percent, only to rise 11 percent in 1996, the city contends.
But gang-related homicides also rose during 1994 while the ordinance was in effect, said Warren Friedman, executive director of the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety, 175 W. Jackson Blvd., a community group that opposes the law.
The South Austin Community Coalition Council, 5071 W. Congress Parkway, supports the ordinance but is concerned about its effects. “It’s a double-edged sword, since it can threaten civil rights,” said Peter Gunn, project director with the council’s Youth Risk Intervention Project. “But we need to empower the community with weapons.”