L.A. attempts to curb gang activity with anti-loitering laws

Tuesday, September 1, 1998

The Compton Varrio Tortilla Flats gang may be the latest group to find itself targeted by anti-loitering laws.

Los Angeles County prosecutors last week filed a lawsuit seeking restrictions against gang members to prevent them from confronting, intimidating, harassing or threatening residents.

Critics of such injunctions say these measures violate First Amendment free-speech and assembly rights. Some city officials and community residents disagree, saying the restrictions on gangs are necessary to decrease drug dealing, vandalism and intimidation. The L.A. Police Department emphatically supports these efforts citing the city's compelling interest in combating undesirables. It claims the dramatic reduction in criminal activity outweighs any abridgment of law-abiding citizens' First Amendment rights.

“T-Flats gang members started an ongoing shooting war with another criminal street gang in Compton. At least one gang member has been killed and several others wounded in a series of shootings,” said District Attorney Gil Garcetti in a statement after the Superior Court suit was filed.

Jacqueline Jackson, deputy district attorney in S.A.G.E. (Strategies Against Gang Environment), one of the units within L.A. County's Hardcore Gang Division, said that the issue of gang injunctions is not a constitutional question.

“Criminal activity is not constitutionally protected,” Jackson said. “Public nuisances have a great deal of case law behind them in which you can enjoin [criminals] from doing certain things.”

Elizabeth Schroeder, associate director of the ACLU of Southern California, disagreed. She said: “This is yet another example of restrictions on the right of association for a fairly large number of people who are alleged to be gang members.

“We think there are other ways to go about ensuring community safety,” Schroeder said. “This is strongly violative of the First Amendment right of association. Unfortunately, the courts disagree and on this particular one there is probably very little that can be done. We're not in the posture we wish we were in.”

Last year, injunctions aimed at discouraging gang activity were upheld by the California Supreme Court. The court said that gangs are a public nuisance and that injunctions aimed at them are constitutional.

“To hold that the liberty of peaceful, industrious residents … must be forfeited to preserve the illusion of freedom for those whose ill conduct is deleterious to the community as a whole is to ignore half the promise of the Constitution and the whole of its sense,” wrote Justice Janice Rogers Brown in People ex rel. Gallo v. Acuna.

If an injunction is issued in City of Compton v. Compton Varrio Tortilla Flats Gang, it would mark the 22nd granted against gangs in California. A hearing is set for Oct. 1.

“I feel confident based on the amount of evidence I'm giving to the court,” Jackson said. “This is a tremendously active gang, and the first of several of gangs in Compton” the gang unit will target.

“We do not violate anyone's rights,” Jackson said. “Everything is carefully crafted, and the courts have recognized that we're not overbroad and not overreaching.”

State and city officials nationwide will be watching the U.S. Supreme Court next term, when it decides the constitutionality of Chicago's anti-loitering ordinance. An Illinois appeals court and the Illinois Supreme Court have said that the law violates the First Amendment.