Putting fair limits on anti-loitering laws

Court opinion: Justices narrow police discretion but not the ability to fight gangs and drugs.

June 14, 1999

CITIES STRUGGLING to get a grip on street crime while protecting individual rights now have some guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court on how to draft laws that will withstand constitutional challenges.

The high court last week struck down a broadly worded Chicago anti-loitering ordinance that aimed to crack down on gangs by prohibiting groups of people from loitering "for no apparent reason."

The law's intent was to protect residents in neighborhoods paralyzed by thugs and drugs. But the majority on a court that has broadened police power in recent years said Chicago's law gave officers too much discretion when trying to distinguish criminals from law-abiding citizens.

Dissenting Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that he fears the court's decision "has unnecessarily sentenced law-abiding citizens to lives of terror and misery" and leaves them "prisoners in their own homes." Justice Thomas articulates some grave concerns, but he exaggerates the efficacy of anti-loitering laws.

These measures are tools that provide only temporary relief from crime. Baltimore's drug-free zones law, which is in this category, has been so ineffectual that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has sought its repeal.

Many communities caught in the middle are ambivalent about laws that restrict free assembly. While law-abiding citizens believe these measures can eradicate some criminal blight, many would not surrender their rights -- or the rights of their well-behaved children and neighbors -- for a piece of the crime-fighting puzzle.

In handing down its ruling, the Supreme Court majority advised cities that it would uphold anti-loitering laws that do certain things. The conditions are that the laws must be aimed solely at gang members; ban loitering for "a clearly harmful purpose;" narrowly limit the times and locations of banned gatherings, and forbid intimidation by the large "lawless" assembly of gang members.

City councils from Chicago to Annapolis that may be contemplating action in this area should read the ruling very carefully before passing new laws.

No city, however, should use the absence of a loitering law as an excuse for not trying to make a dent in crime. Police and residents can make a difference if they work together, using the laws already on the books.

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