Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s controversial plan to sue gang members passed a key test on Thursday.
The City Council’s public safety committee voted in favor of the proposed ordinance five months after Lightfoot first floated trying to reduce the city’s staggeringly high levels of gun violence by suing gang leaders for their profits from alleged crimes. The vote means the legislation will move to the full city council.
The victory for the mayor came in the face of strident opposition from multiple sides. The City Council’s progressive caucus had called the proposal pointless and potentially harmful. Ald. Ray Lopez, who has made a name for himself as an anti-gang crusader, said it was an empty political gesture and civil rights attorneys warned the plan would open the city up to costly lawsuits.
Lightfoot responded to many of those criticisms in a conference call with reporters last month, saying critics didn’t really understand the “contours” of the ordinance.
“There is a significant profit motive on the part of these gang members to commit the crimes that they’re committing. Not just illegal gun trafficking, or drug dealing, but the shootings and homicides that are flowing directly from the illegal drug trade,” Lightfoot said.
Critics, including Lopez and Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell, have said this idea of high-rolling gangbangers making big bucks through drug dealing and turf wars is outdated. Instead they said most Chicago gang members are poor and desperate young men with no assets to seize. If the city gets anything out of these lawsuits, critics said, it will likely be property taken from uninvolved family members.
Lightfoot said her office had refined the language of the gang lawsuit proposal in response to concerns that the plan would amount to “an effort to seize grandma’s house,” and added protections to make sure only gang leaders would be targeted.
Sheila Bedi, director of the Community Justice Clinic at Northwestern University Law School, said those changes did not go nearly far enough to prevent the inevitable harm the plan would do to communities of color.
Bedi was one of more than 50 civil rights attorneys to sign a letter sent to Lightfoot and the city law department last month, with the strongly implied threat that if the city moves to sue gang members, these high-powered attorneys will end up suing the city. At the time, Bedi said the city going after alleged gang members in court would almost certainly mean due process violations and complaints of discrimination, because the city’s past efforts at identifying gang members almost exclusively targeted Black and Latino people.
“The … letter has been signed on by a group of attorneys who are themselves responsible for taxpayers paying millions … of dollars in legal fees. And they’re making clear that if this ordinance is going to come to pass, legal challenges will follow,” Bedi said.
Lightfoot pushed back against those concerns last month, pledging that city attorneys would be thorough and transparent when going after gang assets.
“We have to make the case under the terms of the legislation that … there’s a criminal enterprise and that the criminal enterprise has very specific proceeds, manifested in property, assets and other things,” Lightfoot said. “So it’s a high burden for us to meet. And it’s going to be evaluated by a judge.”
Lightfoot’s proposed ordinance is modeled after a 1993 Illinois state law empowering local governments to go after potential gang funds.
According to the Chicago Tribune, DuPage County in the western suburbs was the first jurisdiction in the state to file suit under that law.
DuPage County State’s Attorney Bob Berlin said in a September interview with WBEZ that he believes the lawsuits helped bring down gang crime there, but he acknowledged the county had never gotten any money out of the gang lawsuits. And he said DuPage prosecutors had filed only four gang lawsuits in the last three decades. The most recent one was filed in 2010, before Berlin took over as state’s attorney.
“We haven’t seen the need to pursue one of these,” Berlin said. “That’s not to say that we won’t in the future.”
WBEZ’s Claudia Morell, Becky Vevea and Hannah Faris contributed reporting to this story.