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

CHICAGO v. MORALES 527 U.S. 41 (1999)

During the 1980s and 1990s, cities experienced a marked increase in organized gang activity, often linked to the street sale of drugs. Cities and states, frustrated by the inability of ordinary criminal prohibitions to eliminate gangs, sought new ways to control the presence of gangs in urban areas.

Chicago, in an effort to crack down on—as described in its brief to the Supreme Court—"obviously brazen, insistent and lawless gang members and hangers-on on the public ways" who "intimidate residents" and "destabilize" neighborhoods, authorized its police to arrest anyone milling about "without any apparent purpose" in the company of a suspected gang member. Under the law, police could order any loiterers to disperse and, if they refused, arrest them, even absent any evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

In a 6–3 decision, the Supreme Court declared Chicago's ordinance unconstitutional because of its vagueness. The majority, in an opinion authored by Justice John Paul Stevens, explained that the law failed to give the ordinary citizen "adequate notice of what is forbidden and what is permitted" when using the public streets. Moreover, the majority held that "the freedom to loiter for innocent purposes is part of the 'liberty' " protected by the fourteenth amendment guarantee of due process of law.

In dissent, Justice antonin scalia, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Chief Justice william h. rehnquist accused the majority of improperly crafting a "constitutional right to loiter," despite a long history of anti-loitering laws in every state.

In fact, the majority opinion comports with sixty years of precedent—dating back to Lanzetta v. United States (1939)—invalidating vague and standardless laws that target vagrants, suspected criminals, or their associates by criminalizing innocent activity in public. Morales serves notice on cities that they cannot sacrifice civil liberties in their quest to eradicate street gangs.

Adam Winkler

(see also: Procedural Due Process of Law, Criminal; Vagrancy Laws.)

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