Magazine article Insight on the News

Q: Is the Rigorous Enforcement of Anti-Nuisance Laws a Good Idea?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Q: Is the Rigorous Enforcement of Anti-Nuisance Laws a Good Idea?

Article excerpt

Yes: Let the police crack down on minor offenses in order to reduce more serious crime.

In San Jose, Calif., public-nuisance statutes recently were used to rescue residents in the community of Rocksprings from literal imprisonment in their own homes. A gang from outside of Rocksprings took over a four-square-block area, congregating on sidewalks, lawns and in front of apartment complexes, making it their drug-dealing turf. Arson, vandalism, thefts, assaults, shootings and even murders were commonplace. Gang members used garages as urinals and covered walls, fences, sidewalks, buildings and residents' vehicles with graffiti. Citizens who dared protest or call the police were harassed and threatened. Residents withdrew from public places and barricaded themselves inside their homes, isolated from friends and family who were afraid to enter the neighborhood.

The City of San Jose brought suit against 38 gang members, asserting that their behavior constituted a public nuisance, and asked the court to enjoin their activities. The case, People vs. Acuna, moved to the Supreme Court of California, which ruled in the city and citizens' favor: Gang members legally were prevented from "standing, sitting, walking, driving, gathering or appearing in public view with any other defendant" in the Rocksprings neighborhood. The gang's stranglehold on the neighborhood was broken.

The number of public-nuisance lawsuits such as this one is increasing nationwide. Brought by prosecutors on behalf of the public, they reflect an important and positive trend. First, they signal our society's rejection of the exaggerated value placed upon individual rights and liberties -- at the expense of community interests, civic duties and the need for order in a democratic society. Fortunately, the courts are coming to this realization and responding favorably to the use of such lawsuits. Second, the reliance of police end prosecutors on antinuisance laws is part of a broader attempt to rethink how they approach problems of crime and disorder. Old ways haven't worked: Reactive responses by police and prosecutors to serious and violent crime alone produced streets out of control, formerly flourishing urban neighborhoods in decline and law-abiding citizens alienated from criminal-justice institutions and processes. Finally, today's nuisance lawsuits represent the growing use by criminal-justice agencies of civil law and civil remedies, in addition to criminal law, to restore order and reduce crime, and they are proving to be powerful and effective tools.

The San Jose case illustrates just why civil remedies such as nuisance abatement are so effective. At first, police attempted to arrest gang members for their illegal activities. But the gang posted lookouts to warn members when police were arriving, so they quickly would disperse before officers could observe their actions or arrest them. Witnesses were so intimidated by threats and retaliation from gang members that they did not want to testify in court, yet criminal prosecution requires witnesses to reveal themselves. Finally, residents became so fearful that they were terrified of seeing members together on the street, even though association among gang members by itself was not a criminal act. In other cases where prosecutors and police have pursued civil actions, such as in evictions of drug-dealing tenants or closing down drug houses on housing-code violations, the remedy can be achieved much more rapidly than through a criminal proceeding, often in as little as two or three weeks. And although the level of proof required in a civil proceeding is lower than that in a criminal trial, violation of the court's order in many jurisdictions constitutes criminal contempt: For San Jose gang members, this means that if they violate the court's order against knowing association, all the constitutional protections applicable to a criminal case would attend their trial.

San Jose is not alone in experiencing violent gang behavior that destroyed the safety and quality of life of its citizens. …

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