Chicago v. Morales

LOCATION: Knowles' Car

DOCKET NO.: 97-1121
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Illinois

CITATION: 527 US 41 (1999)
ARGUED: Dec 09, 1998
DECIDED: Jun 10, 1999

Harvey Grossman - For the respondents
Lawrence Rosenthal - For the petitioner

Facts of the case

Chicago's Gang Congregation Ordinance prohibits "criminal street gang members" from loitering in public places. If a police officer observes a person whom he reasonably believes to be a gang member loitering in a public place with one or more persons, he shall order them to disperse. A violation of the ordinance arises when anyone does not promptly obey a dispersal order. An officer's discretion was purportedly limited by confining arrest authority to designated officers, establishing detailed criteria for defining street gangs and membership therein, and providing for designated, but publicly undisclosed, enforcement areas. In 1993, Jesus Morales was arrested and found guilty under the ordinance for loitering in a Chicago neighborhood after he ignored police orders to disperse. Ultimately, after Morales challenged his arrest, the Illinois Supreme Court held that the ordinance violated due process of law in that it is impermissibly vague on its face and an arbitrary restriction on personal liberties.


Does Chicago's Gang Congregation Ordinance, which prohibits "criminal street gang members" from loitering in public places, violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?

Media for Chicago v. Morales

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 09, 1998 in Chicago v. Morales

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 10, 1999 in Chicago v. Morales

John Paul Stevens:

The Second case that I have to announce is Chicago against Morales and it comes to us from the Supreme Court of Illinois.

In 1992, the Chicago City Council enacted a Gang Congregation Ordinance.

The Ordinance contains a series of findings that explain the reasons for its enactment.

The Council has found that a continuing increase in criminal street gang activity was largely responsible for the city's rising murder rate, as well as, an escalation of violent and drug related crimes.

It noted that in many neighborhoods through out the city, "the burgeoning presence of street gang members in public places has intimidated many law abiding citizens".

Furthermore, the Council stated, the gang members establish control over identifiable areas by loitering in those areas and intimidating others from entering those areas.

Members of criminal streets gang avoid arrest by committing no offence punishable under existing laws when they know the police are present.

It further found that loitering in public places like criminal street gang members creates a justifiable fear for the safety of persons and property in the area and aggressive action is necessary to preserve the city streets and public places so that the public may use such places without fear.

The text of the ordinance covers a great deal of conduct that is not described in those findings.

Under the ordinance "if a police officers observes a person whom he reasonably believes could be a gang member, loitering in a public place with one or more other people, the officer shall order the group to disperse, any person who does not obey the dispersal order has violated the ordinance."

The ordinance defines the term loitering, "as to remain in one place with no apparent purpose".

It creates a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to $500, imprisonment for not more than six months and requirement to perform up to 120 hours of community service.

In the three years after the enactment of the ordinance, the Chicago police issued approximately 89,000 dispersal orders and arrested over 42,000 people.

They acted pursuant to a police department general order that limited the areas of the city in which the ordinance would apply, but the police did not release this information to the public.

A number of Chicago citizens who were arrested under the ordinance contended that the law violated the federal and Illinois constitutions.

Two state trial judges rejected this contention and upheld the ordinance.

11 others how ever held the law unconstitutional, several appeals were consolidated in the Illinois Appellate court and that court also found the ordinance unconstitutional.

It held that the ordinance violated the freedom of assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Federal Constitution, that it was unconstitutionally vague that a criminal like status rather than conduct and it jeopardized the rights protected by the Forth Amendment.

The Illinois Supreme Court unanimously affirmed, finding the ordinance unconstitutionally vague in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution.

We granted certiorari and now affirm.

We agree with the Illinois Supreme Court that the ordinance is unconstitutionally vague because it allows and perhaps encourages the police to enforce it in an arbitrary and discriminatory way.

The ordinance defines loitering as having "no apparent purpose".

The Illinois Supreme Court concluded that this definition provides absolute discretion to police officers to determine what activities constitute loitering.

We accept their construction of this phrase and we agree that it gives police officers too much discretion in determining whom they should order to disperse.

All parties agree that a person's actual purpose in standing in a public place is irrelevant under the ordinance.

It does not matter, for example, whether the reason that a gang member and his father might loiter near Wrigley Field is to rob an unsuspecting fan or just to get a glimpse of Sammy SoSa leaving the ballpark.

If their purpose is not apparent to a near by police officer, the officer has the authority to order them to disperse, unless of course the police department has decided not to enforce the ordinance in that part of the city.

Any Chicagoan who stands on a public street with a gang member, for any reason, runs the risk that a police officer may not believe she has an apparent purpose, even if she is standing with her son in front of their apartment building.

In addition, to my opinion supporting the averments, opinions supporting the judgment have been, authored by Justice O'Connor, Justice Kennedy and Justice Breyer.

Justice Thomas, has filed a dissenting opinion in which the Chief Justice joins and Justice Scalia has also filed a dissent.