Police can’t conduct warrantless gun searches in public housing projects, a federal judge said Thursday in a decision that rebuffed pleas from housing officials and tenants who hoped the sweeps would quell gang violence.
U.S. District Judge Wayne Andersen’s ruling ended the latest round in an emotional dispute between city officials and civil libertarians who argue that the courts can’t grant a wholesale waiver of the Constitution’s protection against unreasonable searches.
“The erosion of the rights of people on the other side of town will ultimately undermine the rights of each of us,” Andersen said in refusing to lift a ban he imposed last month.
Violence last summer prompted the Chicago Housing Authority to ask police to conduct the random, door-to-door searches for weapons.
President Clinton said after the ruling he has ordered Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros to develop a search policy for all U.S. public housing that is constitutionally permissible.
“We must not allow criminals to find shelter in the public housing community they terrorize,” Clinton said in a statement.
Some tenants also backed the warrantless searches, saying they would prefer the sweeps to random gunfire that made it dangerous to stand near windows or venture outside.
“Mothers put kids in their bathtubs in fear of their lives,” CHA chairman Vincent Lane said before the hearing.
Lane left the courtroom without comment after Andersen’s ruling. Earlier, he had said he didn’t expect Andersen to lift the ban and predicted the case would wind up in the Supreme Court.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued to halt the searches on behalf of Chicago’s estimated 150,000 public housing tenants.
Gang warfare last month in the huge Robert Taylor Homes project brought new urgency to the debate. Police received more than 300 reports of gunfire in the 28-building, 12,320-tenant complex over a five-day period.
Andersen has permitted police to conduct warrantless searches if specific apartments are pinpointed as sources of gunfire, and Lane promised to use that authority if violence erupts again in the projects.