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How far can cities go to curb gangs?

Supreme Court to hear arguments on Chicago law that limits right to assembly in effort to make streets safer.

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Faced with an explosion of gang-related crime in the early 1990s, the City of Chicago attempted to take back the streets from street gangs.

The idea was to make it as difficult as possible for the gangs to sell drugs, recruit new members, and confront rivals on street corners and in public parks. So the City Council passed a loitering ordinance allowing the police to arrest anyone hanging out with a suspected gang member if they refused to obey a police order to disperse.

In three years more than 43,000 suspects were arrested.

Supporters of the new law called it a shining example of proactive community-based policing.

Opponents called it a massive violation of the US Constitution.

Today, the US Supreme Court will consider whether Chicago's anti-loitering law is a permissible delegation of law-enforcement authority or an infringement of the rights of city residents to assemble, associate, and move freely in public areas without government interference.

"A family getting fresh air in front of their apartment building would be subject to this ordinance," says Harvey Grossman, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, and attorney for 70 Chicagoans arrested under the ordinance.

"Innocent kids will get swept off the streets in a trade-off in which the city says this is the only way we can get the bad guys," he says. "That is just too high a price to pay."

The Chicago ordinance was declared unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court. Lawyers for the city appealed to the US Supreme Court.

The case is being closely watched by cities that have such ordinances and law-enforcement officials nationwide who are seeking effective tactics to employ against the growing menace of street gangs.

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