Gang Members and Their Friends Have Rights, Too

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Police officers should not try to be mind readers. That was at the center of a 6-to-3 Supreme Court ruling Thursday, which struck down as too vague a Chicago anti-loitering ordinance that had been enacted to prevent gang members for hanging out on the street. The closely watched case involved a law that authorized police to order any group of persons standing around in public "with no apparent purpose" to move along if the officer believed anyone in the group is a gang member. Writing for the court, Justice John Paul Stevens ruled the ordinance violates "the requirement that a legislature establish minimal guidelines to govern law enforcement." Under the measure, he said, "it matters not whether the reason that a gang member and his father, for example, might loiter near Wrigley Field is to rob an unsuspecting fan or just to get a glimpse of Sammy Sosa leaving the ballpark."

Though this may seem like a liberal decision from a conservative court, says TIME senior writer Adam Cohen, it is consistent with prior rulings. "The court has long been skeptical of loitering laws," he says. "They reach activity we all do and they are often seen as giving police discretion to pick and choose people they donít like." During three years of enforcement, the Chicago ordinance resulted in over 89,000 dispersal orders and 42,000 arrests. The Justices sympathized with Chicagoís gang predicament, but once again they held fast against giving police unfettered leeway.