The California Supreme Court, grappling with how to protect public safety without infringing on civil liberties, heard arguments Monday that courts should be allowed to prohibit gang members from associating in neighborhoods traumatized by gang violence.
The San Jose case before the court has strong ramifications for Southern California, where cities have used state public nuisance laws to obtain injunctions prohibiting gang members from congregating in certain neighborhoods.
San Jose, Westminster and seven communities in Los Angeles County have obtained such injunctions, and police and prosecutors contend that the court orders have helped rid troubled communities of gangs.
Chief Justice Ronald George and Justice Marvin Baxter appeared ready to support the anti-gang tactic. But Justice Stanley Mosk, the member usually considered least likely to vote with the conservative majority, mocked portions of the San Jose injunction that prevented certain individuals from climbing trees or carrying razors, nails, marking pens or spray-paint in a four-block section of the city.
The city's lawyers had argued that someone in a tree might be acting as a lookout during a crime.
The popularity of anti-gang injunctions has been growing in California as a way of preventing violence in communities where it has overwhelmed police. Civil libertarians, however, balk at portions that are broadly aimed at vague activities and predict that the injunctions will proliferate if the state high court upholds San Jose's action.
In comments that bode well for San Jose, George indicated that its injunction was sufficiently narrow because it applied only to four blocks. "To me," George said, "that would be a very significant consideration as opposed to a citywide ban."
For other California communities fighting for similar injunctions, a ruling supporting San Jose would set a favorable precedent.
In Orange County, Deputy Dist. Atty. Greg Robischon is fighting to retain a Westminster anti-gang injunction that aims to keep apart members with a local street gang.
"We're really hoping that the state Superior Court will come out on San Jose's side," Robischon said. "It would tell our Court of Appeals, essentially, how to decide our case."
In 1993, Westminster secured a temporary restraining order that declared the "West Trece" gang a public nuisance, and banned 59 young men from "standing, sitting, walking, driving, gathering or appearing anywhere in public view" with any other members in a 25-square-block neighborhood.
But Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard J. Beacom struck down that court order two months later, calling it unconstitutional because it banned association rather than conduct. Beacom added that the court order targeted offenses already covered in criminal codes such as loitering.
Robischon said the Westminster case is waiting for a hearing date in the Court of Appeals.
"If they don't rule in our favor, we'll go to the state Supreme Court," unless that court already has struck down the San Jose case, Robischon said.
In the San Jose case, the injunction was handed down in 1993 after residents in a four-block neighborhood known as Rocksprings became so terrorized by gang members that they were afraid to let their children out, city officials said. The residents complained that their friends were scared to visit and that gang members dealt drugs, spread graffiti and threatened anyone who tried to intervene.
In the year before the court's action, police made more than 400 arrests in the neighborhood. The injunction applied to 38 alleged gang members, 11 of whom joined the appeal.
Amitai Schwartz, who argued against the injunction on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the order amounted to "imposing parole conditions before crimes are committed."
Baxter asked him whether residents have any other options to stop "tormenting" by gangs. The state Legislature could enact more anti-gang laws or police could be added to the streets, Schwartz replied.
Describing the fears of the residents, George retorted: "You are saying they should just go to the Legislature or call the police? How often can they do this?"
A Court of Appeal last year rejected several portions of the San Jose injunction, limiting its scope to a ban on activities that are already illegal. The city of San Jose, without conceding anything, decided not to challenge portions of the ruling that rejected sections preventing identified individuals from carrying paint, climbing trees or wearing certain gang colors and clothing.
But the city asked the court to reinstate provisions that restrict members from sitting or standing in the neighborhood with another gang member and from annoying, harassing and threatening residents.
Schwartz did not dispute the city's contention that noncriminal activities can be prohibited by injunctions. But he complained that the mere wearing of a Raiders jacket would be enough to annoy some residents and spark punishment. A civil violation could bring up to five days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Justice Mosk repeatedly challenged San Jose's lawyer to reject the most controversial provisions that the city is no longer defending. Assistant City Atty. George Rios declined to disavow them, and it was unclear whether the court would rule on them.
"So these Hispanic young men possess a razor blade or climb a tree, they can be prosecuted?" Mosk demanded. When Rios said the injunction was needed because police work was inadequate, Mosk snapped: "Well, make it adequate."
The court will rule on the case within 90 days.
Also contributing to this report was Times staff writer Tina Nguyen.