Gun Sweeps Brush off Civil Rights

Article excerpt

In an attempt to quell the violence and stop the gunfire echoing within the projects of Chicago, the city began to search for weapons in the homes of the poor. Were a community's civil eights trampled?

When Chicago police began raiding housing projects throughout the city looking for illegal firearms last May, they ferreted out more than unregistered 9mms. The so-called "gun sweeps" unleashed a fierce debate pitting constitutional rights against personal safety, -- the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures against the public's need to feel secure in their homes and neighborhoods.

To be sure, housing projects throughout the city sorely needed assistance. The projects had experienced an unprecedented explosion of violence: In the week before the raids began, tenants reported more than 100 gunshots a day. Mothers put their children to bed in bathtubs to protect them from stray bullets.

But some viewed the raids, spearheaded by the chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority, Vincent Lane, Em mi overreaction. Sending 5,000 officers into the "free-fire zone;" as one columnist called the projects, temporarily stopped the gunfire, but officers demanded entry while unarmed with search warrants. The initial raid became as controversial as it had been unsuccessful -- the team found only about 20 unregistered guns. The American Civil Liberties Union promptly took the city to court, filing a class-action suit on behalf of the project tenants, who number roughly 144,000.

Despite the fact that many of be tenants supported the sweeps, the ACLU proclaimed that the city had ridden roughshod over the tenants' rights, violating the Fourth Amendment, which protects again unreasonable search and seizure, and the Second Amendment, which guarantees citizens the right to keep and bear arms.

"Our position," says Valerie Phillips of the ACLU of Illinois, "is that all people, regardless of where they live, what color they are or how much money they have, are entitled to both their rights and adequate security. We are asking for better law enforcement. Clearly, security in the CHA is sadly deficient." In fact, the ACLU alleges a history of constitutional violations in the form of similar raids experienced by public housing tenants, including Chicago's Operation Clean Sweep, which involved warrantless apartment inspections.

"There's almost a sense that because these are governmental housing units, it's all right to infringe on the rights of people who live in them -- that because of where they live, their rights don't matter," says Bill Winter, a Libertarian Party spokesman. "Even if people are willing to forego their rights, they should not be exploited, their rights should not be trampled on. They are being forced into a situation where they are convinced -- tragically and wrongly -- that there's no other solution to their problem but allowing themselves to be denied their basic, civil rights."

Wayne Andersen, U.S. district judge in northern Illinois, agreed. On April 7, 1994, he declared the sweeps unconstitutional and issued a preliminary injunction to halt the raids -- which had continued in 17 housing projects during the course of nearly a year. The case then took an unusual twist.

Believing that safety takes precedence over constitutional issues, some 5,000 public housing tenants banded together and signed a petition requesting that the raids continue. They then contacted the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities, a Washington-based organization that supports "communitarian" beliefs -- the balance between individual rights social responsibility. Explained one tenant: "Sometimes you got to sacrifice your rights to save your life." The alliance hired the high-powered Washington law firm of Jenner. & Block to represent them in a new civil suit. …