Freedom of Association--for Gangs?
Even as one dissenting judge noted that “Montesquieu, Locke and Madison will turn over in their graves,” the California Supreme Court ruled recently that cities can prohibit suspected gang members from engaging in otherwise legal activities such as associating on street corners.
Freedom of association is a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but the justices ruled in a 4-3 decision that a community’s right to security and protection from crime is more important.
The decision validated Los Angeles police and prosecutors’ practices of serving alleged gang members with orders banning them from being in view of one another on the street, carrying pagers or standing on rooftops.
Gang members often use pagers for drug deals, police say, and post associates on rooftops as lookouts for police.
Should police and prosecutors be able to ban gang members from otherwise legal activities such as associating on a street corner?
Albert Melena, coordinator of the Blythe Street Prevention Project, San Fernando Valley Partnership:
[This authority] “can be abused by the Police Department, although it has really worked on Blythe Street. . . . The thing to look at is how do they characterize someone as a gang member? Any cop could stop a kid and ask some questions, and the next thing you know, they’re [perceived as] a gang member. . . . I’ve seen people stopped who weren’t gang members. . . . It has made a difference, but I’ve also seen kids who shouldn’t be in trouble get arrested just for living on Blythe Street.”
Jane McGlory, president of the Boys & Girls Club of the San Fernando Valley and founder of the Pacoima Community Youth Culture Center:
“Anything to help clean up the neighborhood, I’m 100% for . . . especially if it means there won’t be any more fighting and killing. . . . But I would not like it if a group of guys, just for being together, get hassled and called gang members when they never were in a gang.”
Martin Vranicar, Los Angeles assistant city attorney:
“The U.S. Supreme Court has made a distinction . . . [that] not every association is going to be free of regulation. . . . For the purpose of terrorizing a neighborhood, the court is going to allow us to prevent that association. . . . [But] in order to get an injunction, I have to prove that the street gang has been terrorizing a specific neighborhood. . . . I’m not targeting kids who are just hanging out, and under the injunction, no one who has not been served with the court order can be subject to it. . . . Our position is that there are adequate protections of civil liberties. . . . I think what it does is provide the community breathing space to get back on its feet.”
Robert Pugsley, professor of criminal law at Southwestern University School of Law:
“I think you have to show a compelling state interest in order to abridge a right such as freedom of assembly. . . . You can’t have a wholesale ban of traffic on certain streets and sidewalks. . . . [But] as long as there is individual service of the order and some opportunity for an individual to have court access to argue that he was either not a gang member or not engaged in gang activities, in my view that would be sufficient protection for the individual liberty interests.”
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